Schools Order Ethnic, Sex Balance on Scholar Teams

Times Education Writer

The Los Angeles Unified School District has ordered the coaches of high school academic decathlon teams to see to it that their squads “reflect the sex and ethnic makeup” of the student body, a requirement that one coach labeled a quota system.

“I think it’s outrageous,” said Rose Gilbert, whose team at Palisades High School has won all four of the annual citywide academic contests. “They don’t do this for the football team or the basketball team or the debate squad. Why single us out?”

Gilbert said she “fields the best team I can get. I don’t look at any kid by their race or color or whether they have two left legs.” Her team last fall was made up of five white males and one white female.

Last week, district officials told Gilbert and other high school coaches that they would disqualify teams in next November’s competition if they do not have a “reasonable representation” of females and minorities.


Must Pass an Inspection

“I’m going to do a visual review on the day of the competition, and teams which don’t comply will not be permitted to compete,” said Paul Possemato, director of the senior high division.

Possemato and other district officials disputed Gilbert’s charge that he was ordering that a quota be established.

“I’m not going to talk about specific numbers or percentages, but I should be able to look at the team and get a feel for the school,” Possemato said. Having only one girl on a six-member team “is not reasonable. A 4-to-2 split--that might be OK,” he said.


Possemato said the academic contest should be “symbolic” of the education process, and he refused to compare the makeup of decathlon teams with sports teams.

“I cannot equate those two,” he said. “I think you can find the very best (for the academic contest) and they will reflect the ethnic and gender makeup of the school.”

Must Be ‘Representative’ of School

District officials said the guidelines for the 4-year-old academic contest have always called for a team to be “representative” of its school. Moreover, two of the six members must be “A” students, two must be “B” students and two must have a “C” average.

According to several accounts, the new enforcement action stems from several complaints that the winners have tended to be predominantly white teams from the Westside and the west San Fernando Valley.

School Supt. Harry Handler said “there have been some concerns raised” about the makeup of the teams.

“I haven’t talked to Paul (Possemato) about the details of this, but I support the direction he’s taking,” Handler added.

School officials and coaches are divided on the new order.


Dan Spetner, a coach whose Dorsey High team has regularly been among the top five in the district, said it was “a gutsy and courageous move by Dr. Possemato. The key word he emphasized to us was reasonable . How can anybody argue about an honest attempt by all coaches to have teams that reflect the ethnic and sexual makeup of the school?”

Needs More Female Contestants

Dorsey’s 1984 team had five blacks and one Asian student. But only one was a female, Spetner noted, “which is something I need to work on.”

Westside school board member Alan Gershman said he is “really uncomfortable” with Possemato’s directive because it appears to be “moving toward a quota system.”

“This is a competition about academic excellence and the ability to perform academically, and the selection should be based solely on that,” Gershman said. “If any student has been excluded or discouraged because of their race or ethnicity, we should take action on that. But I haven’t heard of any such reports.”

On the other side, Rita Walters, who represents South-Central Los Angeles, said the new directive “sounds like a perfectly reasonably request. It’s obvious that the team from Palisades is not representative of that school.”

According to the district census, half the students at Palisades High are Anglo, 42% are black, 4% are Latino and 4% Asian.

“A monoracial team in a school like that represents a quota system in my view. They are certainly able to find plenty of blacks for their football and basketball teams,” Walters said.


Gilbert of Palisades said she has had minority students on teams, but few volunteer. “It means a lot of extra work, and not everyone wants to do it,” she said.

Students are selected through teacher recommendations and scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, she added.