How White Is Your School: The Most Diverse High Schools in RI

Saturday, June 01, 2013


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With a balance of Asian, Black, Hispanic and White students, Classical High School is the No. 1 Most Diverse High School in Rhode Island.

From the busy streets of downtown Providence to the open country roads in the heart of Exeter, Rhode Island is a diverse state with many vibrant and unique communities comprised of blended families from all types of backgrounds, origins and experiences.

But how well is that diversity reflected in the Ocean State’s Schools? Not very.

According to Dennis Langley, President of the Urban League of Rhode Island, diversity is more than a buzz word and the results of the study show that the Ocean State has a long way to go if it wants to attain an ideal mix of students more reflective of RI’s culture as a whole.

“It’s not surprising because we’re kind of establishing de facto segregation by economics,” Langley said. “We try to isolate ourselves or insolate ourselves from others … and that will be a problem because if students are not taught at an early age how to relate to others, then when they get into the [business world], they won’t be able to associate and it will be a detriment to many of those young people.”

In the first review of its kind, spent three months analyzing data with the Institute for Education Science's National Center for Education Statistics to determine which of Rhode Island’s public high schools had the most overall racial balance. The more balanced a school's enrollment was across the categories measured by the NCES, the higher it ranked. 

What we found was that while the state as a whole is a diverse mix of students from a number of races and ethnicities, those races tend to collect in large numbers percentages based on the school district itself, creating segregated pockets of White, Black, Hispanic and Asian student bodies.

So while some Providence and Pawtucket urban schools may have a strong mix of students from different races and ethnicities, by and large the state continues to struggle in the area.

SLIDESHOW: The Most and Least Diverse High Schools in Rhode Island

A Vital Tool

For years, officials both in Rhode Island and across the country had stressed the idea of diversity as one of the basic tenets of education and now, more than ever, the concept of a multi-cultural education system with a diverse and mixed student body has been lauded as a key in preparing the next generation of America’s students for life outside of the classroom.

“To have a diverse population is an asset to any state or any institution,” Langley said. “We learn about different cultures, we learn about the dos and the don’ts relative to different cultures and it prepares young people for doing business. It teaches them how to be cultured and how to enter into the corporate community and learn to see each other as equal.”

The basic demographics of the United States continue to evolve and, at some point in next 100 years, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the country’s minority population will become the majority.

On top of that push, the very nature of the business world is shifting to a global economy made up of managers, department head and executives from every walk of life and every unique and diverse culture.

Jim Vincent, president of the NAACP's Providence chapter, says preparing students for life in this new and constantly-evolving world is key to their future success.

“I think diversity is crucial,” Vincent said. “We’re living in the 21st century where not only do you run into people with different backgrounds on a daily basis but we’re living in a global society, people are from all over the world so unless you interact with diverse populations, you’re severely handicapped in business dealings and dealings involving public service and other endeavors.”

Vincent goes even further and says he believes not being exposed to a diverse environment can have long-term ramifications for students as they enter the workplace.

“I would dare say that I would not want to have a manger or department head that had not had that kind of experience before because of the liability one may occur because of not understanding diverse populations,” he said.

Steven Brown of the ACLU calls diversity crucial to a student’s overall educational experience.

“Having a diverse range of students in a school can be very important in positive ways,” he said. “It can introduce and expose students to different cultures and, to some extent, different ways of seeing the world. It can clear up misconceptions and prejudices about ethnic groups other than one's own, and in that way promote more tolerance.”

For more on GoLocal's methodology and the rankings, click here.

Rhode Island's Most Diverse High School: Classical High School

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The importance of diversity in today’s educational climate makes the result of this study more than disheartening.

At least, if you’re not Classical High School.

At the top of the list for most diverse high schools in Rhode Island was Providence’s public magnet school.

Classical has a total enrollment of 1,047 students spread out through all the racial categories analyzed. In all, the school has a student body that is 42.3 percent Hispanic, 26.5 percent White, 18.4 percent Black and 10.5 percent Asian.

But because the school has a select admissions policy which draws the top-performing students from across the city of Providence, its demographics are uniquely different than the rest of the city’s other public high schools.

No other school came that close to balance across the four test groups.

Langley says that Classical’s diversity, and its ability to draw a more integrated student body than the rest of the state’s public schools, comes down to three key factors.

“No. 1, many of those youngsters are tested to enter that institution so they’re getting the cream of the crop across the state or across the city,” he said. “No. 2, most of those youngsters are from middle to upper class communities within the city. No. 3, I think the parents have done an excellent job in preparing them to understand that their culture is not unique and obviously they must learn to appreciate other cultures.”

Providence, Pawtucket a mixed bag

As a whole, the cities of Providence and Pawtucket fared well in the study as seven of the top 10 most diverse schools were from one of the state’s two largest urban school districts.

But a deeper looking into the numbers reveal some key points of concern as schools like Central and Mt. Pleasant fared well when looked at percentages of minority students but also had some of the lowest percentages of white students in the state.

Langley says the results are reflective of the communities as a whole.

“I think the educational institution is quite diverse within the city of Providence,” he said. “We have individuals from all walks of life, individuals from a variety of cultures.”

For Vincent, though, the results show a startling trend when compared to the rest of the state.

“I think Rhode Island is a very diverse state so it has a very diverse student population as a whole but it’s not evenly-distributed,” he said. “A lot of the minority populations tend to be concentrated in the cities and there are suburban areas that are virtually all White.”

The Difference is Clear

The top nine schools in this study all had three or more racial groups comprise at least 10 percent of their overall student body.

The top schools—Classical, the Jacqueline M. Walsh School for the Performing and Visual Arts, the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, Tolman and Shea—all also shared another distinction in how they’re viewed.

“First of all, with the exception of Shea High school, these are all the "flagship" schools of urban systems,” said Rick Richards, a former employee in the Testing Department at the Rhode Island Department of Education. “They are perceived as providing good educations and have maintained their traditional White, middle class enrollments along with adding Black and Latino enrollments. Shea's diversity is a tribute to its own hard work.”

All it takes is an analysis of the most diverse schools to see why the least diverse ones struggle.

The bottom 15 schools in this study all had a white population of at least 90 percent and many, if not most, were in suburban areas of the state with a much smaller minority demographic.

Richards says it’s a matter of economics.

“In some cases high property values keep diverse populations from moving in,” he explained. “In other cases, the towns are pretty far from urban centers where most minorities find jobs. None of these towns has the readily available low rent housing in large quantities that is needed to accommodate in-migration.”

The five least diverse schools in Rhode Island are Barrington High School (94.5 % White), Narragansett High School (95.1%), Coventry High School (95.9%), Scituate High School (96.9%) and Ponaganset High School (99.5%).

What Can Be Done?

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Apart from a seismic shift in the racial composition of the suburban communities listed above, most experts believe there are no short-term solutions to the diversity problems plaguing many RI schools.

“I think it's hard or individual schools to tackle the issue of diversity, but for starters, schools need to assure parents that they provide a safe environment and that they promote high quality learning,” Richard said. “That attracts parents from all stations of life.”

But even if the schools themselves can’t change the numbers, they can still encourage diversity within their walls.

“It is encouraging to see that schools like Classical and the Walsh School, which are not neighborhood schools, are among the more diverse ones in the state,” Brown said. “Most other schools are likely to reflect the makeup of the neighborhoods in which they are located. The most important thing that cities and towns can do to promote diversity is to draw school boundary lines in ways that do not further ensconce or perpetuate segregation in their districts.”

RIDE Commissioner Deborah Gist says the state pays close attention to the issue of diversity and wants its students to receive the same level of education regardless of their “race, ethnicity, religion, gender or gender identity, national origin, or disability.”

“As an agency, our performance goals are to cut in half over a five-year span the achievement gaps that affect students of color, students with disabilities, and economically disadvantaged students,” she said. “We have also made closing these achievement gaps one of the two most heavily-weighted factors in our classification system, by which we hold schools accountable for results and provide schools with support to advance student achievement.”

Gist says there’s also another issue with diversity that hasn’t quite been looked at yet.

“I have been struck from the time of my arrival in Rhode Island by the lack of diversity among our teachers and school leaders,” she said. “To rectify this lack of diversity, our strategic plan, Transforming Education in Rhode Island, includes the goal of developing a more diverse corps of great teachers and school leaders.

To that end, we have expanded opportunities for entry into the teaching profession through nontraditional pathways and we have established an Academy for Transformative Leadership, which trains aspiring principals for leadership roles in persistently low-achieving schools in our urban communities.”

The results of those initiatives and the future makeup and diversity of school districts both urban and suburban remain to be seen. 

To see the full chart of the Most and Least Diverse High Schools in RI, click here.


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