More top students of color should be admitted at Baltimore County magnet schools, NAACP leader says

Published 11/8/2022 6:00 a.m. EST, Updated 11/8/2022 3:18 p.m. EST

A student fidgets with his pencil inside Hampstead Hill Academy on 8/29/22. Monday was the first day back to school for Baltimore City students.

The president of the Randallstown NAACP is demanding that Baltimore County Schools admit the top 10% of eighth grade students of color into its top magnet programs.

In a nine-page letter to the school board and Superintendent Darryl Williams, chapter president Ryan Coleman identified what he said are ways to improve academic achievement for students of color and low-income students. His letter comes amid drops in Maryland achievement scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and signs that the U.S. Supreme Court may bar colleges from considering race when making admissions decisions.

“Baltimore County Public Schools is not doing a good job continuing to push excellence, especially for African American children,” Coleman said in an interview. “They’re losing students who are very good students, who they should want to keep in the system.”

Coleman blamed Williams and the school board — which faces a near-total makeover soon due to elections and expiring terms of appointees — for lagging academic achievement among students of color or those of limited means.

“The board has failed to lead to ensure all students can reach their potential,” Coleman wrote. “Their actions we don’t believe [are] in itself racist, however, their lack of action has further enhanced a systemic racist approach strangling students who are Black and Brown and less-affluent white students.”

School board Chair Julie Henn did not return a request for comment. Williamsdeclined to comment through a spokesperson.

Deputy Superintendent Myriam Yarbrough didn’t address Coleman’s specific demands, but stressed that the system strives to have all children meet academic goals, regardless of race or income.

“When we look at the demands in the letter, they very much align with what we’re doing,” she said.

School system staffers pay attention to teacher quality and are committed to the strategic plan, which includes learning, creating safe environments, and community engagement, she said. For those who aren’t aware of the system’s work to improve academics, Yarbrough suggested watching a board meeting or participating in area advisory groups.

“We’re really focused on community partnerships this year to be part of the plan and part of the solution,” she said.

Coleman said he believes school leaders want to close the achievement gap, but “have not shown the urgency, focus or the will to bring key actions and measurable objectives associated with interrupting these predictable patterns of inequity.”

Among Coleman’s demands: automatically admitting the top 10% of eighth grade students of color into Western School of Technology in Catonsville; Eastern Technical High School in Essex; George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology in Towson; and Towson High’s Law and Public Policy program. All four were recognized as top Maryland schools by U.S. News & World Report.

Three out of four of these schools have a majority of students of color, but Coleman wants to see a mandate anyway. He defined a student of color as nonwhite.

“These are the kids that have achieved. These are the kids that have done the work,” Coleman said, referring to top-performing nonwhite students. “This is not a handout.”

Coleman also wants to ensure that students of color in K-12 have access to high-achieving magnet schools, require that all students attend pre-kindergarten and increase the number of Black teachers.

“There’s a lot of conversation about kids not performing,” Coleman said. “But there’s no talk about kids performing at high levels.”

In Coleman’s letter, he cites a February report showing student performance on the fall 2021 state assessments. Those who scored at or above the 61st percentile are considered to be on the path to becoming college- and career-ready by graduation. The percentage of Black students who met or exceeded that mark in math and reading is below that of their peers in all grade levels, according to the report. Black first graders trailed by 23.8 percentage points in math while Black fifth and sixth graders were each 19.1 percentage points behind.

Students who receive free and reduced-price meals also scored lower than other students. In math and reading, for example, fourth grade students in this group were 29.6 percentage points and 27.7 percentage points behind, respectively.

“The only kids doing well are white affluent students,” Coleman said.

Allison Socol, a vice president for policy, research and practice at the nonprofit Education Trust, said opportunities for advanced coursework in middle schools are inequitable in many communities.

“And there are barriers that prevent Black and Latino students to be admitted to competitive high school programs,” she added. “Districts and schools must do better at ensuring that rigorous courses and programs of study are available in all schools, all students have access, and that Black and Latino students have the supports necessary to be successful.”

Coleman said Black friends of his took their kids out of county schools if they were not admitted to a magnet school. The general curriculum was not challenging enough for them, he said, and the magnet programs on the west side, where they lived, weren’t up to par. His idea for admitting the top students of color isn’t the only solution and not a perfect one, he acknowledged, but is the “quickest way to give our students options.”

Magnet schools allow students to take specialized courses not usually offered at a neighborhood school. Public school students from around the county can apply and a certain number are admitted. While some advocates see them as a way of providing educational opportunities to students of all races and backgrounds, others have questioned using race as a factor in admissions, and yet others worry that magnet schools siphon top students away from neighborhood schools.

Applications to Baltimore County high school magnet programs include an evaluation that considers the student’s academic performance for the most recent five quarters, as well as a program-specific assessment, except at Overlea and New Town high schools. If the number of applicants for the magnet programs exceeds the number of seats available, the seats are first filled with priority placements — students who score 80% or higher on the assessment. If more seats are available, the school randomly selects students with the next highest scores.

Baltimore City also has a lottery process for its magnet schools.

To let in the top 10% of students of color, the district would either have to add more seats or have fewer randomly selected students.

According to 2021 data from the Maryland State Department of Education, only 34.5% of students in the county are white, while 40 percent are Black. Towson High is the only magnet school among the four that Coleman identified where white students outnumber students of color. Western Tech is the exception.

Still, Coleman recommends putting in place a mandate, so spots are always guaranteed for the top students of color.

During the 2019-2020 school year — the latest year for which data is available — 30.4% of the county’s gifted and talented high school students were Black and 7.2% were Hispanic or Latino.

The NAACP’s push comes as some conservatives target the concept of race-based admission decisions.

The Supreme Court’s conservative super-majority may prohibit allowing race to be a factor in college admissions. Oral arguments were held last month involving a 2014 lawsuit against Harvard College and the University of North Carolina. Harvard is accused of violating the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits institutions that receive federal funding from discriminating based on race. The petitioners, Students for Fair Admissions, say Asian Americans are less likely to be admitted than similarly qualified white, Black or Hispanic applicants.

The same group contends that UNC violated the 14th amendment, which bars racial discrimination by government entities, by considering race in its admissions process “when the university does not need to do so to achieve a diverse student body.”

Earlier this year, the court declined to block the admissions policy of a Northern Virginia high school for science and technology that was designed to increase its racial and socioeconomic diversity. One group claimed the policy discriminated against Asian Americans — a majority of the student body.

While Coleman didn’t mention any lawsuits, he did say in a previous interview that if the county school system doesn’t show gains in academic achievement and curb school violence, the Randallstown branch would urge the school board not to renew the contract of Williams in 2023. Now he’s questioning whether other leaders should stay if there are no academic improvements by the end of the school year.

Seven school board seats are up for election on Nov. 8, including four where the races are contested. The terms of four appointed board members are expiring soon; those seats will be filled by the next governor. It is likely that a new board will decide whether to renew the contract of Williams when it’s up next year.

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