Feature: M-A’s Issue With Diversity
M-A claims to have “strength in diversity,” yet its almost homogenous honors classes betray a lack of diversity at the higher course levels, something M-A is trying and struggling to solve with the Honors Institute.
This school year, the Caucasian and Hispanic populations at M-A were practically equal in size. However, Caucasians students were seven times more represented in AS (advanced standing) classes. Although Asians only account for 5% of students at M-A, there are as many Asians as Hispanics in honors classes—10.3%.
Even more strikingly, the majority of students enrolled in honors classes come from Menlo Park feeder schools Hillview and La Entrada. Only 3.7% of students in advanced classes come from feeder school Ravenswood in East Palo Alto.
In an effort to increase the diversity of these classes, M-A created the Honors Institute, a five-week summer program geared towards preparing about 25 incoming freshman for the academic challenges that lie ahead in advanced classes. Students work on summer reading, geometry, and biology, to introduce them to the new level of rigor of the workload they will be facing in the fall.
Sophomore Joel Reynada says that the Honors Institute “helped especially with [adjusting] to the workload” and “getting prepared for the feel of high school.”
Though some students are able to remain in honors classes and be successful after partaking in the Honors Institute, the question still stands: why are a large number of students from certain groups continuing to be underrepresented in honors classes?
Vice Principal Karl Losekoot explains that the Honors Institute is “an introduction to what an honors class is. It’s not a continual support.” Losekoot was principal of the Honors Institute and ran it the past two years.
Since lack of support during the school year seems to be an issue, Vice Principal Steve Lippi proposes the idea of a “study skills type of course for the freshmen coming in that first year,” where they can receive daily support from a staff member to help ease their transition. However, this will be “hard to provide” because they “can’t get funded for a support class.”
English teacher Lisa Otsuka adds that there are also “social and cultural factors that can come into play” when considering the lack of diversity. “The majority of their classmates from the feeder schools are not taking upper level classes, so if they take harder classes they’re not with their friends anymore.” Honors institute student Ana Valverde “felt uncomfortable” with only one other student from her middle school, Belle Haven, in her honors biology class freshman year.
Also, “top students [from] some of the feeder schools come [to M-A] and they’re not top students anymore,” says Carson. This alone can cause students to “get frustrated” and discouraged on top of the stress of a new environment, added academic pressure, and unfamiliar new peers.
One anonymous student was initially enrolled in honors geometry, but decided to drop the course while taking the Honors Institute because it made her realize how much work would be involved in an honors course.
Mrs. Otsuka adds, “Many students who attend the Honors Institute are the first in their families who are hoping to go to a four year college or continue their education after high school. Often, students work after school and they don’t always have the same support network at home that other kids do. I give the students who come to this Institute during the summer a lot of credit. The Institute is not a solution to the problem, but it certainly is a step in the right direction.”
The Honors Institute works towards preparing students for this type of academic rigor, but as Losekoot explains, “It’s a challenging program because here’s a summer program where you’re inviting students to come on a voluntary basis because you want them to be excited about learning, but at the same time you want to challenge them so that they know what an honors class is like, which means you have to give them a lot of homework and challenge them with really hard problems without pushing them away.”