Wide diversity gaps in Fayette's advanced high school programs

"We have an emergency on our hands," Fayette County Public Schools Superintendent Tom Shelton wrote in his preface to the district's Equity Scorecard, an annual report detailing the achievement gaps among students of different race, gender, socioeconomic status, special need status or native language.

And he's right.

Though FCPS should be commended for releasing information beyond the requirements of the law, the truths remain disheartening: a 41-percent gap in college readiness between white and black students, a 39-percent gap in reading scores between students qualifying for free or reduced lunch and those who don't, and a suspension rate 15 times higher for black students than their Asian peers.

While those gaps understandably draw the most attention, there is also serious underrepresentation of the brightest minority students in some of the system's most prestigious high school programs. Billed as academically elite, the programs provide challenging classes, increased resources and focused teaching. Increasingly, they appear to be islands of white privilege.

Often highly instrumental in preparing students for postgraduate success, the accelerated programs and their admissions criteria deserve the attention of not only the school district but also parents and community leaders. Admissions policies operate as gatekeepers for success — and many minority students are missing their chances.

The Herald-Leader reviewed the previous year's enrollment data for the School for the Creative and Performing Arts and Pre-Engineering programs at Lafayette High School, the International Baccalaureate program at Tates Creek High School, the Spanish Immersion program at Bryan Station High School, the Math, Science and Technology Center at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School and the Liberal Arts Academy at Henry Clay High School.

Five of the six programs were at least 70 percent white, even though whites account for 62 percent of all high school students. Black students account for less than 10 percent of the enrollment in these programs, despite constituting a quarter of the student body.

About one in seven white students participate in these accelerated programs. For Asians, the rate is much higher — about one in three. For black and Hispanic students, it is less than one in 20.

And half of all high-school students qualify for free or reduced lunch, but such students make up only 11 percent of the enrollment in these programs.

These shocking symptoms emerge from deep causes. Michael Dailey, FCPS associate director for magnet programs, cited both simple unawareness and stringent academic standards for admission, often requiring students to score in the 96th percentile in standardized testing.

Shelton sees those rigid requirements as exacerbating the disparities. "In my personal opinion, education in general focuses too much on testing and assessment. And so, I don't think these programs are any different from that," he said.

By either softening these stiff barriers or expanding alternate programs for advanced education, such as the recently launched Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) Academy, FCPS could provide advanced education for the minority and low-income students most in need of a strong education.

The STEAM program, chosen by lottery only, will provide high level science and arts classes to participating students. Shelton sees the program on a new trajectory for gifted and talented education that places less emphasis on admission requirements.

He contends that any student, when given the proper supporting framework, can meet the challenge meted out by more difficult coursework.

A growing percentage of minority students — nearly 15 percent — are already enrolling in advanced placement or college-prepatory classes. Rather than preeemptively limiting the chance for educational growth, why not provide an opportunity to prove their capabilities?

"When we create opportunities for students and when we raise the expectations for students and we have the right relationships with them, they will rise to the occasion," Shelton said.

The school system is rightly conducting internal reviews and seeking desperately needed community support to alleviate these lingering inequities. Shelton said he recognizes that "the No. 1 issue is making connections."

And those necessary connections would be aided by diversifying the district's teacher pool, which is close to 90 percent white. Strong relationships between students and teachers are needed to loosen the unrelenting circles of poverty and lack of access that unfairly consign vast swathes of youngsters to a status that diminishes their potential.

School officials say they are expanding efforts to reach parents through churches and other community institutions. Staff are sifting through testing data to help identify students as gifted and talented whose potential might otherwise go unnoticed.

Some children are blessed with involved parents. But we cannot be blind to those who are not — those most in need of helpful intervention. Absent that, the disparities and inequities will be long-lasting and more severe.

And, as the , the status quo is not just inadequate — it is an emergency.

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