Manhattan Beacon School’s Racial Hope Dims

Juan Gonzalez, New York Daily News, May 15, 2009

The Beacon School, a high performing public high school on Manhattan’s West Side, counts the children of some powerful city figures among its students.

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Several teachers and parents at the school have begun to question whether Beacon’s admission policy is skewed to benefit upper income and white students.

“We are very disturbed by the small–and shrinking–number of black and Latino students at Beacon,” the critics said in a letter last week to Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and members of the City Council.

Department of Education statistics show the percentage of African-American students at the school has declined in the past four years, from 19.1% to 14.9%; Latino enrollment has dropped from 24% to 21%.

In the same period, there has been a steady decline in the small percentages of low-income pupils (currently 17%) and English Language Learners (less than 1%).

Those numbers have shocked education activists who recall the great promises of racial diversity made when Beacon was founded in the late 1990s.

“The idea then was that Beacon would be a rigorous school with one-third black, one-third Hispanic and one-third white students,” said Jon Moscow, whose son was a part of Beacon’s first class.

As the school’s reputation for high achievement grew, upper income parents began clamoring to get their children in.

Five years ago, the Department of Education accommodated that demand by changing Beacon’s admissions policy. Instead of a school that gave priority to children in Manhattan’s Community School District 3, it became a “screened school.”

That meant students from across the city competed to get in. Top grades, student portfolios and interviews were required.

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“I’m worried that black and brown children are being increasingly left out of the top schools in Manhattan,” said Ernest Leif Boyd, who has a relative at Beacon and is one of the authors of the letter to Klein.

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“Race is not a criteria for admission to Beacon or any other public school,” said DOE spokesman Andrew Jacob. “Beacon remains one of the most diverse of the selective schools in the city.”

The decrease in black and Hispanic students at the school, Jacob said, merely “mirrors some demographic trends in Manhattan,” where the population of white public school pupils has increased slightly.

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