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Diversity program at Beverly Hills High enrolls mostly Asians

The school draws from L.A. Unified to increase minority enrollment but can't ask applicants about race or ethnicity.

April 02, 2007|Joel Rubin | 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.

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.

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.

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.

"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.

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.

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.

"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."

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