Anastasia McAllister still remembers not feeling well when she left her interview at Vancouver School of Arts and Academics.
It’s been more than a decade, so it’s hard to pinpoint why, she said. Maybe it had something to do with the stern white woman who interviewed her, the now 23-year-old Native American artist said. Would her art, deeply rooted in her Hopi and Colville roots, be understood or taken seriously at the school?
“I felt like the woman and I didn’t connect in a good way,” McAllister said. “I remember I didn’t feel like she understood what I was really interested in or where I was coming from.”
Even so, when McAllister, now living in New York City, received a phone call saying she’d been wait-listed to the arts school, she was shocked. She plays the drums, draws and paints, weaves and beads. She was on the dance floor at powwows since before she could walk.
“I told them no,” she said. “If you don’t want me, then I don’t want you.”
Enrollment data from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, the state’s education department, suggests that Vancouver Public Schools’ magnet schools may have a diversity problem. The district’s specialized middle and high schools trend disproportionately whiter than the district as a whole, state data shows.
Experts on diversity in education say those disparities limit educational opportunities for students of color and, in turn, their job and economic prospects later in life.
“The schools are reproducing rather than breaking the cycle,” said Claus von Zastrow, an independent researcher of diversity in schools based in Washington, D.C. “They’re reinforcing it.”
But principals from both VSAA and Vancouver iTech Preparatory say the demographics of their schools reflect the demographics of their applicants, suggesting a recruitment problem rather than an acceptance problem.
“We look at our data every year and we compare the demographics and the demographics of our accepted kids, and we actually do pretty well,” said Lori Rotherham, VSAA principal.
70 percent white
More than 70 percent of the students are white at both VSAA and iTech Prep, the district’s science and engineering school. That contrasts with 58.2 percent districtwide.
Furthermore, the magnet schools have not kept pace with the growth in the district’s diversity.
In the last decade, Vancouver Public Schools’ nonwhite population has increased from 25.5 percent to 41.8 percent. VSAA’s nonwhite student population, meanwhile, has seen a little more than half that increase — from 14.2 percent to 23.2 percent. Students who wish to attend VSAA must apply and interview to be accepted at the school.
Growth at iTech Prep, which selects its students in a blind lottery, has been similarly slow. When the college preparatory school opened in 2012, 26 percent of the student body was students of color, compared with 36.1 districtwide. Four years later, in 2016, that grew to 29 percent at iTech — a 3 percentage point growth compared with 5.7 percentage points districtwide.
Dolly England, diversity outreach manager at Clark College, is a VSAA graduate. She joked she was one of “three brown kids” in her graduating class.
England didn’t pursue a career in music like she thought she might as a child. But the opportunities to collaborate with her peers, to advocate for things she believed were important and to build community through the arts — opportunities she believes she may not have had otherwise — led her to a career in community organizing.
“It’s really exciting to see kids coming from the K-12 system with that passion and excitement,” England said. “There were things I never would have thought about ever in my life had I just been in regular school.”
But districts must take more responsibility in improving diversity at their magnet campuses, England said. She suggested schools develop mentorship programs for students of color, expand anti-bias training for teachers and reach out specifically to encourage students of color to apply for magnet programs.
“It’s easier said than done especially when it comes to diversity,” England said. “If they truly care about student success, we have to look at some of those systems.”
Slow signs of change
While the percent of nonwhite students applying to attend iTech Prep and VSAA has increased at both schools in recent years, the trend of predominantly white applicants has continued. For the 2016-2017 school year, 66 percent of iTech Prep’s applicants from the Vancouver school district were white. That’s slightly more diverse than the school’s overall white population of 71 percent that year.
At iTech Prep, teachers are attending science events at every district elementary school throughout the year, and counselors are visiting fifth-grade classes to talk about the school, Principal Darby Meade said. The district also hosts summer science camps for girls and a tea party for girls and their mothers to highlight the program.
“There are some areas where we have opportunities to really affect some change,” Meade said. “If we can start to shift those demographics, we could make an impact on the local community, in (science) fields, in art fields.”
At VSAA last year, 73 percent of students who applied to the school were white. This year 65 percent were white.
In an effort to attract more diverse students, the school will hold application workshops at the district’s five elementary schools where 75 percent or more students receive free or reduced-price meals, generally accepted as a barometer of poverty, Rotherham said. The school also translated informational material about VSAA into Spanish, and offers its online application in Spanish.
“We are always in a cycle of continuous improvement,” Rotherham said. “I would say that’s true of our application process.”
Change comes slowly to the campuses, district officials said. Students are only accepted once a year and the vast majority of new students at both schools are incoming sixth-graders. Assistant Superintendent Travis Campbell said the district is working to recruit more diverse students.
“We need to improve,” Campbell said. “It’s an opportunity for us.”
Data suggests that, across the city, Evergreen Public Schools has struck a better balance at Henrietta Lacks Health and Bioscience High School — though that school is disproportionately female, due, perhaps, to the perception that it’s exclusively a nursing magnet program, suggested district spokeswoman Gail Spolar.
HeLa has more white students than any other Evergreen district high school, at 65.5 percent. Evergreen as a whole is 58.6 percent white, bringing the biotechnology high school closer in line to the district’s overall demographics than the Vancouver school district’s magnet schools.
“The demographics at HeLa is a decent mirror of the average of our district,” said Bill Oman, executive director of secondary education for the district.
The district has encouraged English language learner liaisons to provide information to families about the school, as well as tapping parent volunteers who speak Spanish or Russian to share information with their neighbors, co-workers or friends. Applications for the school — which, like iTech, are run through a random generator granting seats — are also available in Spanish and Russian.
“We do want to improve,” Oman said. “We’re proud of the fact that it’s an open application, that it’s a lottery, that any student who wants to go to HeLa will go to HeLa eventually.”
Supporting students of color and low-income students means providing a variety of resources, say experts and advocates for diversity in education. Too often, programs like magnet schools can rope in students who are already predisposed to succeed, leaving out those who could most benefit from the experience.
Nate Bowling, Washington’s 2016 Teacher of the Year and a social studies teacher at Lincoln High School in Tacoma, said magnet programs tend to reinforce the same inequities they’re trying to eliminate. Lengthy application processes or even where the school is located can create barriers for families who may not have the resources to complete those applications or drive a long way.
“Whenever we’re creating a new program, our program should be appealing to our most marginalized and most needy students,” said Bowling, who advocates for improved diversity in schools. “Far too often, these schools don’t do that.”
Both Vancouver and Evergreen provide transportation to their respective magnet schools.
England encouraged schools to consider the lasting impact of turning down students of color.
“I would ask these organizations, these schools to think about that lasting impact,” England said. “I feel like, you finally get some students of color who are applying, you say there’s space for them, and you don’t select them.”
Despite the initial disappointment of not being accepted to VSAA, McAllister continued to pursue her dream of being an artist. She now works for the Jim Henson Carriage House in New York, has done set design for a Native American-run theater company and interns with a Native-owned video production company, working on virtual reality and 360-degree video projects.
McAllister credits her family, who bought her 100-packs of gel pens and suitcases full of charcoal and pastels on holidays, and her Columbia River High School art teacher, a mentor with whom she still talks, for emboldening her to be an artist.
“I think of anyone who hasn’t had the privileges I’ve had, or hasn’t had the kind of support I have,” she said. “I don’t know if I’d be in New York City doing art.”
Now, McAllister wonders, what might have been had she been accepted to VSAA’s middle and high school? What connections might she have made?
What obstacles, she continues, might have existed if her parents hadn’t encouraged her to pursue a career in art? What oppression may she have faced in her career were she darker skinned, or disabled?
“I can’t think of a single person of color who was a friend of mine that went there. I’m having a hard time thinking of someone who wasn’t a white man or woman,” she said. “And that makes me really uncomfortable.”
Correction, Dec. 18, 2017: A previous version of this article mischaracterized the Vancouver School of Arts and Academics application requirements. Students apply to the school and interview to be selected to attend.