Before she arrived at middle school, Itanza Lawrence admits, she cleaved to certain racial stereotypes. Asians were quiet and smart. African Americans, her group, were “ghetto” and “not academically competitive.”
She doesn’t see it that way anymore.
Along with getting a top-notch education, Itanza and many of her classmates say, they have learned to appreciate diversity and become comfortable with people of all races and nationalities. That makes LACES, as the Mid-City school is more commonly known, a model for what the Los Angeles Unified School District said it was trying to preserve when it fought a legal battle to retain the ability to assign students to magnet schools by race.
The district won that battle this week when a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge rejected a lawsuit by the Pacific Legal Foundation, which claimed that the use of race in magnet assignments violated California’s Proposition 209, the anti-affirmative action initiative passed by voters in 1996.
[LACES’] Academic Performance Index score of 824 puts it well above the state and district averages of 679 and 622, respectively. And Principal Margaret Kim proudly noted that every member of the 2007 graduating class went to college this fall. A map hanging in the school’s college counseling office shows where those students went, a list that includes Harvard, Columbia, Brown, Stanford and Howard universities, Morehouse College and MIT, with a healthy sprinkling of University of California campuses. Moreover, LACES—like most other magnets—has no academic entrance requirements. Its 1,600 students are chosen by a weighted lottery that ensures that 30% of the school will be white and 70% will be nonwhite.
Administrators, teachers and students say that, from the start, the school pushes students and inculcates a presumption that they all are college-bound. Middle schoolers see high school students taking school seriously, and most of them fall into line. “There’s a culture of success,” said Wong. “Kids don’t get laughed at if they’re looking at a book.”
The school is successful among all races and ethnic groups, although there remains a significant gap between Asian and white students and their African American and Latino counterparts. White students, for example, had an API score of 893 this year while Latinos lagged at 774 and African Americans at 733, still well ahead of district and statewide averages.
Still, staff and students say LACES provides diversity that is hard to find in education, even at the college level. The school is almost evenly divided among the major racial groups.
The students, mostly seniors, agreed that it had been a wonderful experience to attend such a diverse school. “I think it allows us to get past the stereotypes,” said Michelle Nii, 18.