Two years of altering the admissions process at City Honors School has done nothing to get more African-American students enrolled in the school.
In fact, the disparity has grown a little worse.
In a school district where half the students are black, African-Americans make up just 16.4 percent of the enrollment at City Honors this year, according to figures from the Buffalo Public Schools.
That’s down from 18 percent two years ago.
“That’s just mind-boggling,” said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, “and a huge concern.”
Superintendent Kriner Cash hinted earlier this year that, despite efforts to correct the disproportionately low number of black and Hispanic students at the city’s top-performing school, the outcome may still be disappointing when school opened this month.
New students enrolled at City Honors this year did little to change the racial makeup. Of the 154 new students accepted for the 2017-18 school year, more than half were white, while 21 – about 14 percent – were black.
The percentage of white students fell, too, as the number of Asian and multirace students showed the biggest gains.
Now, the district likely faces some hard decisions on how it chooses to broaden the diversity.
The district acknowledges it needs to work on narrowing the achievement gap between whites and blacks across schools so more students are academically prepared to compete for a spot at City Honors. Thirty-five percent of the district's white students in grades 3 through 8 met standards for English language arts last year, compared to 12 percent of black students.
But the superintendent in the past also has mentioned setting aside seats for top minority students or opening a City Honors II, although the district now seems to be leaning away from that option. Any action the district takes must be balanced with its premise that no student who is less qualified will be given a seat over a student who is more qualified – regardless of their background.
“We are now at the river’s edge, if you will, on where we need to go next,” Cash told the School Board last week. “Our options and windows are closing around this important issue.”
The school district first plans to hold a series of meetings in the next few weeks seeking input from parents and the community before the superintendent would make recommendations to the School Board.
“We have learned that impacting historic disparity in enrollment, improving diversity and avoiding racial isolation at schools will not happen by trying things and then waiting to see if they work,” said Will Keresztes, chief of intergovernmental affairs, planning and community engagement for the district. “We must be much more intentional, we must take deliberate steps.”
Enrollment figures show:
• The proportion of black students at City Honors has shrunk – not grown – since the district began making admission changes to address the disproportionately low number of minorities. African-American students make up 48.5 percent of the enrollment in grades 5 through 12 across the district this year, compared to 16.4 percent at City Honors – what Keresztes called “severe disproportionality.” It was 17.6 percent last school year and 18 percent the year prior.
• The numbers at City Honors are better for Hispanic students; but they, too, are still underrepresented. Hispanics make up 8.5 percent of the enrollment at the school, which is slightly larger than it was three years ago. But the proportion of Hispanics enrolled in grades 5 through 12 across the district is nearly double what it is at City Honors.
• The largest growth in enrollment at the school is among Asian students. Nearly 11 percent of the students at City Honors are Asian, which is up more than 3 percentage points from two years ago and slightly larger than the enrollment of Asian students across the district. Much of that growth, Keresztes said, is driven by Buffalo’s new immigrant population.
• While small in numbers at City Honors, students who identify as multiracial make up a larger percentage compared to the district as a whole.
• White students continue to dominate enrollment at City Honors. They make up 58.8 percent of the student body at City Honors, even though they make up just 23.4 percent of students enrolled in grades 5 through 12 across the district. The percentage of white students, however, is also smaller from two years ago, as the growth of Asian students has increased.
Buffalo’s other criteria-based school under scrutiny, Olmsted 156, has a racial make-up this year that is 34 percent white and 39 percent black, which is still off from the district’s demographics, but more in proportion.
Radford, though, is critical of the way this all has been handled.
“They brought in an expert to make recommendations on how to correct the problem, then they did not take the expert’s recommendations,” Radford said, referring to a 2015 report from Gary Orfield and the UCLA Civil Rights Project. “Instead, they came up with their own plan which led to the problem getting worse.”
“Now,” Radford said, “the result is the same old thing.”
Radford’s parent group was the one to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education alleging discrimination in admissions practices at City Honors and Olmsted, forcing the district to make changes.
The district created a ranking system for students seeking admission; brought in an independent consultant to handle the process; and offered the admissions test in schools across the district, dramatically increasing the number of test takers.
In fact, about 2,400 students took the admissions test last year – nearly double the 1,300 who tested the prior year, as the district expanded testing sites. Among those were more than 1,000 black students – more than triple the 200 to 300 who traditionally tested for City Honors and Olmsted 156.
Still, the disparities persisted.
Last year, the district no longer took into account teacher recommendations and suspended the use of scores from state assessment tests as part of the admissions formula. It also required that students be residents of Buffalo before taking the admissions test, a move designed to crack down on the possibility that non-district students were gaming the system.
That left just three factors for determining admission to the school – a cognitive test, grade point average and attendance – leading to the controversial decision to implement a lottery system to break tie scores and include only students attending a Buffalo Public School when there are not enough seats available.
Still, the disparities persist.
“This is one of the main issues Buffalo still has to confront,” Radford said, “and we have to stare it right in the face.”
He thinks the district needs to go back and follow those expert recommendations, which include opening a City Honors II and minimizing the use of IQ-type tests to determine admission.
“I think there are some that we may want to reconsider at this point,” agreed School Board President Barbara A. Seals Nevergold, “with respect to establishing another school, with respect to setting ... some seats in a special category in order to increase enrollment of minority students.”
Keresztes, however, cautioned about going down the road of a City Honors II.
"A second City Honors does not address the historic disparity in enrollment that exists at the current City Honors School," Keresztes said. "Dr. Orfield's recommendation, while well-meaning, would normalize our acceptance of an enclave school for some and a second school for everyone else. That's the definition of racial isolation. And that's what we must avoid."