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Diversity program at Beverly Hills High enrolls mostly Asians

Times Staff Writer

In 1969, when nearly every student at Beverly Hills High School was white, school officials went looking for some help diversifying the campus. They found it in the polyglot Los Angeles school system that surrounds the tony, iconic city.

Under a system of “diversity permits,” the high school began enrolling scores of minority students from Los Angeles each year. For decades, the permit program aimed to bring in a deliberate mix of black, Latino and Asian students from outside the city limits.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. April 4, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 04, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 65 words Type of Material: Correction
Diversity at Beverly Hills High: An article in Monday’s California section about a diversity program at Beverly Hills High School that aims to enroll minority students from Los Angeles schools misidentified a subject of the story. The woman who was in the first group of students to participate in the program and who helped organize protests to defend it is Wanda Greenehill, not Melinda Weathersby.

Today, however, the vast majority of the students enrolled with diversity permits at Beverly Hills High are high-performing Asian students.

The dramatic shift stems from California’s stringent anti-affirmative action law, approved by voters in 1996. Concerned with running afoul of the sweeping ban, Beverly Hills school officials have followed what amounts to a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on the diversity permits. Students who apply are not allowed to identify their race or ethnicity.

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The program has become as competitive as the Ivy League, with about 8% of the students who applied last year being accepted. Critics say the program has shifted by default from a program aimed at increasing racial and ethnic diversity to one that simply brings smart, well-rounded students into the district.

“We were looking to expand diversity but didn’t have any racial information,” said Dan Stepenosky, the former principal at Beverly Hills High. “We were operating blind, to be honest.”

Not only does the high number of Asian students raise questions about the purpose of the program, but it also illustrates the inability of the Los Angeles Unified School District to keep its high-performing students in its schools.

The permit program offers another option, along with private schools or even moving outside the district, for parents dissatisfied with the academics and concerned about safety on L.A. Unified campuses.

“Why wouldn’t I take advantage of this opportunity?” said Teresa Roth, whose two sons are half Asian and attend Beverly Hills High on diversity permits. “In LAUSD, they don’t care if your kid is gifted, if he plays sports, if he is well-rounded. They couldn’t have cared less. I felt quite let down.”

Roth, who lives in Westwood, said she started looking for a way out of the L.A. school system after applying unsuccessfully to enroll her older son, David, in one of the district’s selective magnet high schools. Sending her sons to a large, traditional Los Angeles Unified high school, she said, was not an option she was willing to consider.

The Beverly Hills High diversity permits, Roth said, offered a free, quality education on a safe campus. Several Asian students who attend Beverly Hills High on the permits gave similar reasons.

In California, students cannot enroll in schools outside their districts without special permits.

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Of the 159 Los Angeles Unified students who attend Beverly Hills High on diversity permits, 108 -- more than two out of three -- are Asian, according to L.A. Unified statistics. Only 16 of the students are Latino and 19 are black.

Those numbers do nothing to balance diversity at Beverly Hills High, where -- excluding those with permits -- minority students are also mostly Asian.

About 17% of the 2,362 students at the school are of Asian extraction, about 4% are Latino and about 5% are African American. Nearly 70% of the students are white, a category that includes 450 students of Persian descent.

The disproportionate number of Asians who receive the permits also stands in stark contrast to the racial breakdown of the 12 L.A. Unified middle schools that participate in the permit program. More than half of the students at those schools are Latino, one-quarter are African American and fewer than 8% are Asian.

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Beverly Hills Unified School District Supt. Kari McVeigh acknowledged that the numbers are skewed, but she defended the permits. The Los Angeles students, she said, bring an element of diversity to the sheltered, upscale world of Beverly Hills regardless of their race.

“This is very much a small town surrounded by a large city, and kids here experience life very much through the lens of a small town,” she said. “Any time you can ... have different kids who come together from different experiences, it’s a good idea. The permit program allows us to do that.”

She also conceded that money is one of the motivating factors for keeping the program alive.

Because the amount of public funds a school receives is based on the number of students enrolled, Beverly Hills High uses the diversity permits -- and other types of permits -- to fill empty seats and maximize funding. This year, the district will receive nearly $1 million for enrolling the diversity-permit students.

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“Taking in nonresident students is always an issue for some people,” McVeigh said. “But it’s a crucial source of income for us. It helps us provide the types of programs we are known for.”

The influx of Asian students apparently began in 2000, when the permit program came under scrutiny. The program’s admissions policy, district lawyers advised the Beverly Hills school board, violated the state law that bars public institutions from considering race in admissions.

Board members moved to do away with the program altogether but backed down in the face of well-organized protests by parents. To avoid possible lawsuits, however, the board decided that a student’s race or ethnicity could no longer be considered when awarding permits. Instead, students were chosen based on an application, which included grades, test scores, essays and extracurricular activities.

Neither school district could provide ethnic or racial breakdowns of the students who attended Beverly Hills High before the changes in the program went into effect. But parents, former students and permit rosters indicate that it was a more diverse program then.

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Most of the students who receive the permits today are Asians enrolled in gifted programs at two Los Angeles middle schools, John Burroughs and Palms, L.A. Unified figures show.

“Of course it’s Asian students” who receive most of the permits, said Robin Day, assistant principal at Palms. “They are the students who are most driven and have the highest grades.

“Their parents are very on top of” the application process too, Day said. “It’s a chance at Beverly Hills, and that’s attractive to many people.”

Indeed, Beverly Hills High -- with its smaller class sizes, better resources, impressive test scores and higher number of Advance Placement and arts courses -- outshines most traditional Los Angeles Unified high schools.

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Had they remained in L.A. Unified, for example, many of the permit students would have been slated to attend Los Angeles High School -- a struggling, 4,300-student campus that is nearly 79% Latino and 8% Asian.

The school has been on a federal government watch list for poor student performance for several years, and more than two-thirds of students last year tested “below basic” or “far below basic” on the state’s standardized English and math exams.

“Because all the discussion is on the kids who are failing, there is no equal effort to search for and serve the most talented in the district and provide them with a rigorous education,” said Los Angeles school board member David Tokofsky.

Board President Marlene Canter, who largely represents schools on the Westside, agreed. She said L.A. Unified needs to be more responsive to parents who have the option to leave the district. The district should double its number of selective, specialty magnet schools and allow parents a greater say in reforms to their middle and high schools, she said.

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“Our public education system on the Westside is going to die if we don’t nurture it,” she said. “Parents want to know that they will have a program that will be exciting for their kids.... Right now, there is the perception that the grass is greener elsewhere.”

Canter added that she was very concerned when she learned about the diversity permit program and questioned whether the district should continue to cooperate with Beverly Hills High.

Proponents of the permits say that scrapping the program would be a loss but that changes are needed.

Melinda Weathersby was in the first group of students in 1969 who received the permits. In 2000, with two of her children enrolled with permits, she led the fight to save the program when the school board tried to cut it.

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Now, Weathersby, who is black, believes Beverly Hills High officials need to recruit Latino and black students more aggressively. She also wants the school district to select a few students from each of the participating Los Angeles middle schools in an effort to enroll a more diverse group.

“You have 12 schools, and you can’t find one or two students at each who qualify?” she said. “It is called equity.”

joel.rubin@latimes.com


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