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Should Diversity Be a Mandate of Elite Public Schools?

Some of the best public schools in the country have a dearth of black and Hispanic students.

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, Virginia, is widely considered one of the best (if not, the best) public high school in America. Its student body, however, isn't reflective of the country that it's situated in, or, more specifically, the county where it's located. A paltry 4 percent of its students are black or Hispanic, whereas 90 percent are either Asian or white.

A story in The Washington Post last week that brought this information to light mirrors a story in The New York Times from August, which highlighted a prestigious Manhattan public school, Hunter College High School, that has the exact same proportion of black and Hispanic students. The Times article discussed Hunter's recently launched attempts at increased "outreach," which among other things, would include coaxing all fifth-graders in New York City who score in the top 10 percent on statewide math and reading tests to take the school's proprietary exam. Unfortunately, according to The Post, TJ's efforts, thus far, have been unsuccessful.

The question then becomes: Are these elite high schools responsible for ensuring that they train diverse populations of students?

The answer could come down to this simple fact: Whereas students from TJ and Hunter are matriculating to top universities for which they're academically prepared, they run the risk of being socially shocked by greater diversity in college. (Black and Hispanic students typically make up around 20 percent of the student body at most Ivy League schools.) One teacher in The Post article on TJ notes that she's often taught units dealing with race to classes with no black or Hispanic students. And when populations of those students are so low, it's hard for those kids that are enrolled in these schools not to be identified by their race.

At the moment, Jefferson's admission policy is race-blind (not in principle, but in practice). And, at Hunter, ultimately success on its test is what matters. Jay Mathews, a longtime education reporter at The Post suggests that TJ take a hint from the schools it wants so badly to send its students to:

The ability to benefit from the school’s imaginative teaching is not the main criterion for the admission people, I suspect. Like the rest of us, they are impressed by test scores. I have seen the Ivy League admissions process at close range. Applicants in the 95th percentile on standardized tests are not seriously considered because there are so many in the 99th percentile above them. Those colleges will, however, take a second look if you are a talented flautist or a ranked squash player or black or an alumni child or Hispanic or related to the family that just funded the new science center.


Photo via Flickr user Kyle Walton.

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