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