From Henry to Harvard, student sees inequities

  • Article by: COREY MITCHELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 5, 2010 - 5:20 PM

Lucia Carver bypassed Minneapolis' more highly regarded high schools.

While a student at Patrick Henry High School, Lucia Carver didn't have a paint-by-the-numbers educational experience.

She plowed her way through a schedule full of International Baccalaureate and intensive Japanese language courses to graduate near the top of her class. She spent her junior year studying abroad in Osaka, Japan.

All the hard work paid off with an acceptance letter from Harvard University, where less than 7 percent of applicants get in. But Carver achieved an even rarer feat in her hometown.

The 2009 Henry High graduate is the only student from a North Side school to earn recognition as a National Merit or National Achievement semifinalist during the past five years.

Over that same time period, 66 students from south Minneapolis public schools received the honor.

All but one of those came from South and Southwest high schools.

Selected by the National Merit Scholarship Corp., the semifinalists are identified as being among the nation's most academically talented students.

Not having students from large swaths of the city eligible for the grants and scholarships that come with the honor is troublesome for some.

The Minneapolis School District has spent several years trying to address issues of equity in its high schools, but disparities remain, school board member Chris Stewart said.

The contrast between the haves and have-nots is most apparent when comparing North and Southwest high schools: North, in the heart of the city's poorest neighborhood, has few resources compared to Southwest, in the most affluent part of town, he said.

"You're creating a system that will produce a predictable product," Stewart said. "It shouldn't be rocket science to figure out why one school produces more National Merit scholars."

The stigma of low- or under-achievement associated with North Side schools was unmistakable, Carver said.

"That's sort of the reality of the district," she said. "It's an unfortunate situation."

Equity issues ave history

For years, South and Southwest high schools have had a broader offering of college preparatory, foreign language and Advanced Placement courses.

The disparity stretched to fine arts education too. In 2009, Southwest High students had 18 music courses. The city's three North Side high schools had 14 combined.

Concentrating rigor in certain schools isn't unusual in large urban districts, said Kent Pekel, executive director of the College Readiness Consortium at the University of Minnesota. "But that doesn't make it right or acceptable," he said.

The decisions stretched back to an era when a limited number of students needed to be ready for college or some other type of post-secondary education. Students in what Stewart calls blue-collar or working-class high schools "don't have any advocates," he said.

"We made decisions based on assumptions about the kids in those buildings," he added.

Times have changed, Pekel said, and so should the approach.

"Every high school ought to have these opportunities," he said. "What we teach and how we teach it really does matter."

By adding International Baccalaureate courses and other options for more students around the city, Minneapolis is moving in the right direction to correct the imbalance, Pekel said. Encouraging students to challenge themselves and increasing expectations for younger students will speed up the process, he said.

Carver had her choice of high schools. She lived near Dinkytown, where her parents run a bed-and-breakfast near the University of Minnesota campus. Before high school, she attended the now-closed Tuttle School, then Marcy Open School. Neither of the southeast Minneapolis schools is listed among the city's highest performing.

Seeking diversity

When it came time to pick a high school, she and her parents sought a diverse student body, not just in race and culture, but income too. Though she often had to defend her decision to attend Henry, the 19-year-old wouldn't trade the experience and teachers she had on Newton Avenue North.

Carver saw firsthand evidence of the district's achievement gap and the struggles of classmates outside the college prep track and English language learners.

"It made me a more educated person," said Carver, a sophomore majoring in East Asian studies at Harvard. "I had a chance to see the inherent inequality in the system."

There are disparities even within Henry High. Last year, the school had the district's third-highest achievement gap between black and white high school students on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment exams.

Ensuring equity in education and closing the achievement gaps between white and minority students, and children of affluence and their peers in poverty, is complex, difficult work, Minneapolis public schools spokesman Stan Alleyne said.

"We have more work to do at certain schools," Alleyne acknowledged. But "we know that we have students in all our schools who are successful."

Lucia Carver is proof of that.

Corey Mitchell • 612-673-4491

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