Rhode Island Reacts to School Diversity Report

Saturday, June 01, 2013


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GoLocalProv's first-ever ranking of diversity in RI's High Schools sparked much debate between school officials at the top and bottom of the charts.

In the first review of its kind, GoLocalProv.com spent three months analyzing data with the Institute for Education Science's National Center for aEducation 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.

The results sparked a wave of reaction from school officials from across the state.

Classical On Top?

Perhaps no piece of information led to a wider range of opinions than the fact the Providence’s Classical High School was ranked as the Most Diverse School in Rhode Island.

Some felt the public magnet school’s racial and ethnical breakdown--42.3 percent Hispanic, 26.5 percent White, 18.4 percent Black and 10.5 percent Asian—was right on target but others believed the school’s ability to draw students from throughout the city and screen for the highest-performing students through its entrance exam process put it at an unfair advantage in attracting the best mix of students.

“I don't think of Classical High School as adding to diversity,” said Providence school teacher Carole Marshall. “It eliminates an important aspect of diversity and hurts diversity in the other Providence high schools by skimming the top ninth graders from the rest of the students.”

Marshall explains that she believes Classical isn’t truly representative of the city is resides in.

“Since in America today academic achievement is so much determined by socio-economic status, Classical has far more white middle class students than the other schools and doesn't reflect the diversity of this city's student population,” she said. “In turn, this skews demographics in the other schools and makes it much more difficult to get the resources needed in those schools to achieve school improvement.”

Others felt Classical’s makeup was even more impressive given its ability to draw from across a wide student population.

“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,” said Steven Brown of the ACLU. “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.”

Classical principal Scott Barr refused to comment for this story.

Shea Scores Big

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Shea High School was ranked the fifth most-diverse High School in Rhode Island.

While Classical’s position atop the rankings drew reactions both positive and negative, one public school in Pawtucket’s strong showing opened many eyes.

Shea High School, ranked fifth overall with a 45.2 percent Black student population, a 31.6 percent Hispanic population and a 16.4 percent White population, was lauded by Rick Richards, a former employee in the Testing Department at the Rhode Island Department of Education.

“Shea's diversity is a tribute to its own hard work,” he said.

Shea principal Donald Miller was thrilled to hear the news and says the numbers are a “very accurate assessment” of his school.

“I think it’s a great thing, I really do,” he said. “We have a phenomenal school here. The kids here are amazing and they’re very accepting of the diversity and supportive of one another and the teachers as well in regards to the support of all the different cultures and backgrounds.”

Miller estimated that students at his school speak upwards of “25 different languages” and initiatives like International Night, an April potluck event where students bring a dish from their culture, and the International Dance Team are just two of the ways in which students learn about cultures unlike their own on a first-hand basis.

“I think it exposes our students to the real world, the reality that we’re all different, we come from different backgrounds, we come from different cultures and speak different languages,” he said. “But at the end of the day we’re all people and that’s the amazing thing about this school, the kids realize that and support one another.”

Avadesian: Warwick Not Surprised

Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian says the rankings, which list his city’s schools right in the middle statewide, were about what he would expect.

“The overall population of the City of Warwick lines up with the breakdown that you have for our student population so that is not a surprise at all,” he said.

Avedisian says his city’s efforts to encourage diversity might not show up in a chart or in a ranking.

“I think you need to look at all of the inclusive activities that take place in our schools,” he said. “All of our high schools have activities based on the principles of understanding, tolerance, and outreach.”

The Warwick Mayor points to his student’s other ways of promoting tolerance as proof that rankings don’t tell the whole story.

“Each and every day our students show their compassion for fellow students and residents of the City,” he said “Through outreach efforts, blood drives, and other activities, I know that our student body is getting the right message about tolerance. They also are getting the correct message to not be bullies and to take a strong stand against bullying.”

Scituate/Ponaganset: We Can’t Control Diversity

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Ponaganset High School's last-place ranking did not come as a surprise to principal Sandra Nolan.

For many public high schools, the diversity of the student population is merely a product of the diversity of the city or town it is located in.

At least, that was the reaction to the findings in Scituate and Ponaganset.

Ranked 50th and 51st, respectively, the two Northern Rhode Island districts finished at the bottom of the chart in terms of diversity and school officials say they’re not surprised.

“The amount of diversity in our community isn’t something we can control,” said Scituate Superintendent Paul Lescault. “Obviously that’s a fixed factor.”

“I love a very diverse place, whether it’s in ethnicities, whether it’s in age, whether it’s in males and females,” said Ponaganset principal Sandra Nolan. “When you have a really diverse population, that’s when you get all different set of viewpoints and ideas so that’s wonderful but some places … it’d be like going into an urban area and being shocked it was diverse. There’s no control over that and just because a school is really diverse or not diverse doesn’t mean that it still isn’t an embracing population that values education, that values individual people.”

Overcoming the Numbers

Lescault and Nolan say their schools do everything they can to promote a better understanding of different races, ethnicities and cultures that their students may not get within the system themselves.

For Lescault, that means developing a strategic plan within the district to make sure “everyone feels welcomed” and planning items like the Foreign Leadership Academy, a day-long workshop where students are exposed to a “variety of speakers” that broach the subject, or through social clubs like the Students Against Destructive Decisions, a group whose goal he says is to “encourage folks to respect diversity.”

“It makes them more cognizant of the diverse world that they live in because Scituate is pretty homogeneous in terms of its makeup,” he said. “Obviously one of the things that you have to do is provide experiences for the kids so that they realize that the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily look like Scituate. There are people of many different races and cultures and belief systems that we have to respect and honor all of those.”

Nolan, meanwhile, says her school’s ranking doesn’t reflect its tolerance toward others.

“The school is actually a very embracing school,” Nolan said. “They’re an unbelievably welcoming group of kids. I have never experienced kids like this anywhere. Absolutely anywhere and if I were a parent, regardless of what my color, ethnicity or background was, this is certainly a school I would want to move into because it is such a welcoming committee by the students.”

Nolan says there’s not much Ponaganset can do to change its student makeup, primarily because she believes it’s a school in a district where families often stay for generations because it offers a unique chance to live away from cities and towns and in a rural setting.

“If you had never been used to that, whether you’re white or of color, you might not be tempted to come out here,” she said.

Regardless, Lescault said, school districts like Scituate and Ponaganset are likely never going to fare well on rankings of diversity.

“It is what it is in the sense that we can’t change the ranking,” he said. “But what we can do is react to the ranking and to improve the overall school program available to kids. So you do a school improvement plan, you’re looking at statistics like this and saying some of the things we can’t change but if we’re cognizant of that, we need to make an extra effort to encourage diversity.”


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