Strength In Diversity: 
Where M-A Falls Short

Mara Cavallaro 

“Strength in diversity.”

It's written on the maroon banner of our logo. It's painted on the floor of the F- wing. It's on our walls, our posters, and our school IDs. It's everywhere. 

And to some extent, it's true. We have a student body that is 42.7 percent Latinx, 40.3 percent white, 4.7 percent Asian, 4 percent African-American, and 3.9 percent Pacific Islander. M-A pulls students from Redwood City, East Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton, Portola Valley and more.

At first glance, we seem to be living up to our school's empowering motto. But a closer look at our classrooms — who is enrolled in which kinds of classes — and our hallways — who chooses to congregate with whom — reveals a very different story. A story of AP classrooms in which the overwhelming majority of students are white or Asian. Of Hispanics and African Americans disproportionately filling regular classes. 

Vanessa Birrueta (Class of 2017) summarized the divisions we see on campus, "If you were just to take a walk through the school, you would see the difference right away. Every time I pass through the green, I never see much diversity. And then I can go down Pride Hall or maybe even go down by the bathrooms close to the lunch line by the library and then the population changes. Over there I see so many Hispanic people. I feel like that's where the main divide is. And as a student at M-A, or at least my first couple of years, I always struggled to see 'where do I go?' Do I go with some of my classmates, who are on the green, or do I go with my friends that are not — pretty much anywhere but?"

"I wish I could say 'strength in diversity' reflects M-A's culture. But I just don't think so. Not at this moment." - Danae Brister, Class of 2018

The exit data for the class of 2016 indicate a similar separation in the classroom between white students and most students of color. While 88 percent of white students took at least one AP or International Baccalaureate (IB) class before graduating, just 8.3 percent of African-Americans and 11.1 percent of Pacific Islanders enrolled in these advanced classes. The data for Latinx students falls in between these two extremes. Slightly less than half, or 46.8 percent of these students took at least one AP course.

*Note: the ethnic category of 'two or more' was removed from the data as no information was provided as to what the ethnic combinations were, rendering statistical analysis difficult . 

When grouped by socio-economic status, ('disadvantaged' vs. not disadvantaged) a similar divide emerges. Economically disadvantaged students were less than half as likely to take an AP class than their non-disadvantaged counterparts. Further, less than half of students from East Palo Alto (43.2 percent) and East Redwood City (45.3 percent) completed an AP course.

These divisions along socio-economic lines and neighborhood of residence largely mirror those based on school district. While Las Lomitas, Menlo Park, and Portola Valley all had over 86 percent of their graduates take at least one AP class, under 44 percent of Redwood City graduates and under 38 percent of Ravenswood graduates took advantage of the AP system.

*Note: Partner Districts with under 3 M-A graduates were removed from the data set due to lack of statistical significance. 
"Why am I the only Mexican in all of my classes?" - Vanessa Birrueta, Class of 2017

As the data above show, there is a visible divide in the academic opportunity of students coming to M-A from different middle schools. While La Entrada and Hillview have enough resources to fund more advanced classes and provide their students with iPads, schools like Kennedy find it difficult to prepare their students for college level courses. Birrueta provided her perspective on these differences, saying,"When you come to M-A there really are two different levels. A lot of the kids that come from the Ravenswood District haven't had the level of education that is needed for AP classes."

"It starts from the middle schools or even the elementary schools. We're just not trained the way a lot of the kids that take AP classes are." -Vanessa Birrueta, Class of 2017

Birrueta herself attended Kennedy Middle School in Redwood City. "I was lucky," she explained. "Even in middle school, I would push to take my advanced classes. I would fight for them." She noted that at Kennedy "it was pretty much all Hispanic kids… in the same socio-economic status" and "the same situation." Still, although there was no competition for placement in advanced classes from more privileged white students, she had to fight to be in these classes. Her peers who did not insist on access to advanced classes faced difficulties at M-A. Suffice it to say that a lot of her friends have never taken an AP. She believes this is because they weren't exposed to more challenging classes before high school. "They already started off behind coming in their freshman year," she explained.

In addition, enrolling in AP classes is not always a straightforward process for students of color. Take, for instance, the case of senior Palutea "Taya" Ma’afu. A transfer student from Gunn High School, she had to take entrance tests upon her arrival at M-A. Although she scored high enough on entrance tests to do well in AS English, she still had to fight to get in the class. 

Her sophomore year, Ma’afu took physics instead of chemistry. She loved it and passed with flying colors — finishing with a grade of 98 percent. Like many students at some point in their high school education, she found she had discovered her passion.  "I want to do this. I know I'm interested in physics," she noted.

But when she asked her counselor — who has since left M-A — to enroll in AP physics, she was told that she ‘wasn’t ready.’ Ma’afu recalled the counselor saying, “I don't think you can do this. I don't think you should do this. I don't even think you are ready for environmental [science].”

"She made any goal that I wanted to achieve so hard. And as she kept saying no more and more, I thought, 'maybe she's right, maybe I shouldn't do this.’" - Taya Ma’afu, Class of 2018

So instead of AP physics, Ma'afu took chemistry her junior year. 

Her new counselor, however, supports her academic interests and is much more understanding. 

"People already have these preconceived notions of who you are, what your abilities are, based on the color of your skin, based on something superficial." -Breanna Sandoval, Class of 2018

When Polynesian student Ma'afu walked into her AP computer science class at the start of her junior year, she felt her heart drop. She looked around, noticed only two other students of color, and recognized only one face. The other students barely talked to her. She was alone, miserable, and too afraid to ask for help. She dropped out of the class. Similar experiences in AP U.S. History prompted her to leave the class second semester. 

When Latina Birrueta took AP European History her sophomore year, she was the only Mexican-American in the room. She was the only socio-economically disadvantaged student. When teacher John Florio asked the class who had been to see a famous piece of artwork abroad, almost every other student raised their hand. She remembered thinking, "I'm the only one. I’m the different one." 

In AP Chemistry the next year, she felt so excluded it brought her to tears.

When African American student Danae Brister showed up to her advanced biology class on the first day of school three years ago, every other student was allowed into the classroom. Upon seeing Brister, the teacher asked her if she was lost. When the then-freshman responded that she had indeed signed up for the course, the teacher had her sit to the side and wait while she verified the roster.

"Nobody else had to deal with that, but I did, just because of what I look like."- Danae Brister, Class of 2018

In each of Latina Breanna Sandoval’s AP classes, she is one of the only students of color as well as one of very few whose parents did not attend college. At the beginning of each one of those classes, she has felt her peers judge her. She explained, “When you walk into a room and everyone else is white or Asian they assume that you are not the smartest one in the class; they assume you are at the bottom half.” 

Sandoval, who earned a rare, prestigious acceptance to the Stanford Institutes of Medicine Summer Research Program, may well be the smartest one in most, if not all of, her STEM classes.

Her freshman year, Indian student Sajel Galhotra was assigned a group assignment in her World Studies class. When her partner began describing his vision for the project, she presumes that because she both "looked confused and was darker-skinned than he," he proceeded to say in Spanish, "It's okay if your English is not good, I will take care of it."

During his first month of AP U.S. History, Pacific Islander Ingold Faleofa’s peers ignored him. When he offered to write or play a role in group projects they refused, took control, and sat him out. He was always nervous, avoided speaking, and was constantly worried about students in his class looking at him the wrong way.

Clearly, we have a problem. Students of color are often alone in their advanced classes and do not feel welcomed. Instead, they feel judged and ignored.

Social science research has increasingly focused on the role of ethnicity, gender and socio-economic stereotypes in self-esteem and academic performance. These studies may shed light on what lies behind the participation and performance gap in AP classes at M-A.

When reminded of their race, gender or socio-economic status, students tend to perform in accordance with the dominant stereotype. For two decades now, researchers have demonstrated this phenomenon. As Newsweek reported, “In their seminal 1995 study, [Claude] Steele and Joshua Aronson… gave 44 Stanford undergrads questions from the verbal part of the tough Graduate Record Exam.”

One group was asked its race before the test, while the other was not. Newsweek characterized the results as “sobering.” Professor Steele explained to the magazine, “Just listing their race undermined the black students’ performance, making them score significantly worse than blacks who did not note their race, and significantly worse than all whites.” The study, however, also demonstrated that these results flow from the stereotype and the stigma it creates. As Newsweek summarized, “the performance of black Stanfordites who were not explicitly reminded of their race equaled that of whites.”

If students of color at schools like M-A are constantly reminded of their differences— asked if they are lost, told they are not ready, singled out, doubted, and ignored, then their decision not to enroll in or to drop AP classes makes sense.

But this decision, both individually and cumulatively, can create disincentives to engage academically. And those minority students who, despite difficulties, enroll in AP classes are likely to encounter tensions within their own communities related to academic performance. Polynesian, Latinx, and African American students alike are familiar with the phenomena of 'white-washing.’

Both Faleofa and Sandoval explained the pressures they feel to conform to expectations from their own group as well as the ‘other group.’ In a school culture in which most Latinx and Polynesians don’t register for AP classes, registering can have harsh personal consequences for minority students. Sandoval, who grew up the daughter of an immigrant mother in mostly white Menlo Park, described her dilemma at M-A, “All the kids who are Hispanic and are Latina that I could probably relate to more just because of my diverse background --I am not friends with because I did not grow up with them and I feel whitewashed in comparison to them. So you feel too white to hang out with them but then also too Hispanic to blend in completely with all the white kids.”

"I remember wishing that I was whiter for the longest time because I thought it would help me blend in more and be more accepted by my peers." -Breanna Sandoval, Class of 2018

Similarly, Faleofa, who was the only Tongan and only student from East Palo Alto in his grade at La Entrada, felt pressure to spend time only with people of his race when he started high school. He observed, “I would try not to hang out with my white friends because I knew that if the Tongans saw me… they would think less of me."

"I guess that people don't associate Mexican with AP classes. They don’t associate Mexican with high GPA." -Vanessa Birrueta, Class of 2017

The stakes on these issues could not be higher. The current political context is fraught with explosive tensions that threaten to undermine the fabric of our society. Last month, tensions between white supremacist Neo-Nazis and pro-diversity demonstrators resulted in the murder of Heather Heyer. Just days ago, President Trump repealed the DACA program, tossing 800,000 of our peers into chaos and uncertainty. 

Issues concerning diversity are front and center everywhere in our country. In many ways, our nation is at a crossroads: will we move forward and become a truly diverse, multiethnic nation, or will we revert to an era of racial hierarchies? 

Whether our motto is empty words or an accurate description of our school is up to us. The time to engage is now.

"My ideal M-A is more diverse classes. More black people graduating. More brown people graduating." -Danae Brister, Class of 2018

Emily Young contributed to this article.