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LIFE AFTER QUOTAS AT OLMSTED AND CITY HONORS, WHITE ADMISSIONS ARE UP BUT DIVERSITY REMAINS

The number of minorities admitted to the city's two premier academic schools for the coming year has dropped significantly, but not unexpectedly, because of the elimination of racial quotas.

Of the 244 new students coming to Olmsted Elementary and City Honors, 39 percent will be minorities, down from 56 percent last year, when quotas were used.

Yvonne Hargrave, an assistant superintendent whose responsibilities include integration efforts, termed the numbers "not devastating, but we still want to move in a direction of being more balanced, minimally 50-50.

"We developed those programs to promote integration and diversity at those buildings, and we don't want to lose sight of that," she said.

At City Honors, a college prep program for middle and high school students, minorities account for 40 percent of those accepted for the coming school year. A year ago, when quotas were in place, minorities made up 52 percent of new students.

At Olmsted, an elementary program for the gifted and talented, minorities account for 34 percent of the pupils accepted for the coming
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Quotas: Race allowed to be lesser consideration in admissions
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year. A year ago, minorities accounted for 57 percent of those admitted under a racial quota system.

In the face of legal challenges, the district last spring dropped its long-standing use of racial quotas to select students for the two schools. Some modifications were made in the screening process, with the major change being the elimination of quotas, while still allowing race to be a lesser consideration.

Catherine Cornbleth, an education professor at the University at Buffalo, called the numbers a mixed bag.

"City Honors isn't bad. I'd raise questions about Olmsted," she said.

Ms. Cornbleth cautioned that the focus should not be on the process used to select pupils, but the equality of opportunity afforded children both in and out of school.

"I'd raise the question about whether minority students have equivalent educational opportunity in their schools and in the community, because I suspect the difference in the acceptance rate has less to do with color than with opportunity," she said.

"You can flail at the (selection) criteria all you want, but it doesn't help kids learn, and that's what needs focusing on. We spend too much time talking about criteria and not enough on helping kids learn."

The decline in minority placements at City Honors and Olmsted is not unexpected, as some whites with higher qualifying scores have been bypassed in the past for minorities with lower scores in order to meet quotas.

The district's enrollment is two-thirds minority, but whites account for a majority of applicants who score well on tests and meet other criteria used to determine admission to the two schools. For example, whites account for two-thirds of students across the district who post the highest achievement scores on standardized tests that measure reading, language and math skills.

The results of the screening process for admission to Olmsted underscore the achievement disparity. Children applying for kindergarten, the largest group of candidates, take an IQ test and are tested for fundamental reading and math skills. Key criteria for the upper grades include an entrance exam, grades and test scores on standardized reading and math tests.

Two-thirds of the white applicants for Olmsted this year were rated qualified or highly qualified. Only one-third of minority applicants earned such ratings. The generally stronger performance of white applicants explains why they are being accepted in greater numbers than minorities, even though minorities account for more than 60 percent of applicants.

More whites would have been admitted in the past had quotas not been used. A Buffalo News analysis of admissions for the 1997-98 school year showed that whites would have accounted for 55 percent of those accepted at Olmsted had quotas not been used, compared with the 43 percent actually admitted. At Honors, whites would have accounted for 78 percent of acceptances last year, compared with the actual rate of 48 percent.

The Board of Education in April voted to end the use of quotas in selecting students while allowing for race to remain a consideration, in the hopes of retaining diversity at the two schools. The enrollment at Honors last year was 46 percent minority; at Olmsted, 45 percent. The two schools are among the most racially balanced in the system.

City Honors expanded its selection criteria -- which included an entrance exam and review of standardized test scores -- to include an essay and review of the applicant's cumulative record, which includes all their grades. The criteria at Olmsted also was expanded: IQ tests continued to be administered to kindergarten applicants, but were dropped in first grade in favor of the same scholastic aptitude test used at City Honors.

The credentials of applicants at both schools were then reviewed by a five-member panel of staff members from the school and the central office. Students were ranked "highly qualified," "qualified" and "not qualified," and placements were made giving priority to the highly qualified.

The district is making greater use of a program for gifted and talented students started five years ago at School 71. Officials do not have any precise figures on the racial composition of incoming pupils, however. Those offered places at School 71 for this year tend to have been rated "qualified," while most of those placed at Olmsted were rated "highly qualified."

City Honors Principal Paul Lafornara said he prefers the new process over the old, in which applicants were chosen based strictly on an average of their qualifying score and their race.

"I think it's a good process," he said. "What it does is put five professionals in a situation where they can review information and make decisions based on many factors, rather than having a frozen formula, like we had before."

On a related front, the School Board earlier this month voted to hire Sally Krisel, a gifted-education specialist with the Georgia Department of Education, to help the district review admission procedures to Olmsted and City Honors and evaluate placement in other advanced programs to determine whether minorities are participating to an appropriate extent. She will be paid $500 a day, or up to $30,000 over a year.

The U.S. Office of Civil Rights asked the district to retain a consultant to help local officials deal with those issues, which have been the subject of federal review. The screening and placement procedures for Honors and Olmsted adopted by School Board this spring are interim, and district officials are looking toward Ms. Krisel to help review the first year and fashion possible modifications.

District officials already have several ideas on how to boost minority placements at Honors and Olmsted. Ms. Hargrave, the assistant superintendent in charge of integration, mentioned possible modifications in the screening process, improved student achievement and more aggressive recruitment as possibilities.

Board of Education President Helene H. Kramer echoed similar sentiments.

"We still have some work to do," she said. "We're committed to racial and ethnic diversity. I expect Buffalo to be a leader in the nation in figuring out how we're going to do this."

Park District Board Member Jack Coyle said he, too, would like to see more minorities qualifying for the programs. But he is concerned that the numbers this year might tempt others to try to change the criteria, rather than focus on improving student achievement.

"We should ask, 'Why don't we have a good mix, and what can we do to ensure one?' What we should concentrate on is raising student performance," Coyle said.

"What we keep doing in this district is keep changing the criteria to ensure the mix we want. It shouldn't work that way."

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