MANCHESTER — The school board has largely welcomed a settlement with a federal civil rights agency aimed at increasing the number of minority students in advanced high school courses, while minority groups applauded the district for acknowledging what they say is a persistent problem.
The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights announced the agreement last week, the culmination of a review that began three years ago. A report released by the agency found that black, Latino and English-learning students were disproportionately under-enrolled in the district's Advanced Placement (AP) courses.
"I'm happy to finally see that you are taking steps to solve this," Eva Castillo, the organizer for the New Hampshire Immigrant Project, told the school board during the public comment period at Monday's meeting.
"I'm happy to help, and the Granite State Organizing Project is also happy to help," Castillo added, referring to the group that has advocated for minority youth in the city. Castillo is the group's president.
Castillo was among several representatives of minority groups, including the head of the local NAACP, who spoke about the issue during the public comment period.
Superintendent Debra Livingston told the board that under the agreement with the OCR, the district would be collecting data and taking specific steps to reach out to minority students.
"They consider the case closed, but it really is only the beginning," she said, referring to the OCR. "I'm so pleased to see so many people coming forward and saying they want to be part of fixing the problem, so all students in the community can have opportunities."
The DOE report found that during the 2010-2011 school year, 26 out of the 434 seats in AP courses were held by black or Latino students. Their enrollment in city high schools was 381 and 596, respectively.
Minority leaders in recent years have raised other issues besides under-representation in AP classes. In 2010, a press conference was held to call attention to practices in the district that its organizers said led to minority students being steered away from the college track. In 2012, local members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights accused the district of tolerating the segregation of English-learning students.
A comprehensive audit of the district last year also highlighted racial disparities, in particular the lack of nonwhite teachers and administrators.
Alim Yai, a student at Manchester High School West, said families, particularly refugees and other immigrants, often don't know how to navigate high school and what comes after graduation.
"We're looking at how we can help students to graduate. Many are not graduating because they're not getting the information," she said, alluding to programs that would allow students to make up credits.
Ward 1 board member Sarah Ambrogi said the issue of staff diversity was important. "It's important that all students have mentors they can look to. One administrator is not enough for our most diverse high school," she said, referring to Central High. "We may have to look across our borders" (to find staff).
However, Ward 7 school board member Ross Terrio rejected the suggestion that racism was at work in the district.
"I feel pretty strongly about this," he said.
"My wife is Latino. She's originally from South America. She's never felt discriminated against by the Manchester School District, just the opposite. My children are of Latino descent. In fact, my daughter is in level 4 classes. She's going to be taking AP classes next year."