When 17-year-old Aaron Booe was applying to the Liberal Arts and Science Academy, Austin ISD's elite magnet high school, he was excited about what the school could offer. When he showed up to take the admissions test, though, something aside from academics stuck out.
“I couldn’t remember seeing very many other people of color applying there, which I thought was expected, but it was sort of profound," he said. "There [were] like three black kids in this room of 200 kids who are all sitting down to take this test.”
Last year, LASA enrolled 1,239 students; around 20 of them were black.
“I went, and I was very shocked at the extent to which I felt alienated," Aaron says.
He found peers who felt the same way and started meeting with a group of adults and students interested in diversity. As Austin ISD prepares to close and consolidate schools, the group has been advocating for the district to change boundaries so students of different races and socioeconomic statuses go to school together.
But if boundary changes aren't accompanied by mindset changes, Aaron's experience shows it could be tough for everyone.
The student population at LASA is 50% white, 20% Latino, 21% Asian, 1% black. Less than 10% of students come from low-income homes. In AISD as a whole, 30% of students are white, 55% are Latino, 4% are Asian and 7% are black.
Students have to apply to get into LASA, and that can be a barrier for many who aren't even aware it's an option. To make sure the school wasn't leaving out students who would do well, LASA recently began what it calls a "holistic" process for admissions. It takes into consideration a student’s socioeconomic status, race and whether the student “has demonstrated academic accomplishment despite unusually difficult circumstances.”
But Aaron and two of his peers say this new process is bringing unwanted attention to students from these groups.
“I just remember very vividly how I felt like I couldn't ask questions in class because everyone would be like, ‘Oh, he’s just this confused black kid who doesn’t really need to be here,' and how 'He’s just here to help bring up demographics,'” Aaron says.
Sophomore Somaya Jimenez-Haham says she felt like she had to prove she earned her spot.
“When I got to LASA, I tried really hard to just not mess up so that people wouldn’t think I was some stereotypical dumb Hispanic person," she says. “That was very exhausting and just draining.”
She says she's also seeing doubts in some of her friends, who are starting to wonder whether they got in just because they're Hispanic and not because of merit.
"'I took the spot of someone who was white, who was smarter than me,'" she says. "And there are some people who go around telling people of color, ‘You just got in because you’re [fill in the] blank.’”
Citlalli Soto-Ferate says she has heard students say negative things about the new admissions process.
“I remember this junior telling the whole class that, ‘Oh, LASA is becoming less elite, LASA is becoming less important. We’re less smart,’” she says.
Once, she says, a teacher publicly recognized her for getting one of the top grades in the class, and another student said it was probably because she was Hispanic.
“I just felt so shell-shocked by that,” she says. “I started thinking, 'Oh yeah, maybe it is.' But now looking back at it, I realize that [teachers] don’t really care about your race when they’re considering grades, it’s just literally numbers.”
The three students say it’s hard to speak up about these issues.
They're also reminded of the differences by the fact that LASA is located on the second floor of LBJ High School. The student population there is 58% Hispanic, 38% black and less than 2% white.
“In LBJ, you can hear students speaking Spanish with each other, they speak Spanglish ... and I kind of wish that I could do that, too, with my friends," Citlalli says. "But I do appreciate my friends; I think they are really supportive."
If the district's boundaries are changed and students go to new schools, some people say teachers and administrators need to be better trained in having these tough conversations.
Aaron has seen a need for this firsthand.
“Whenever I try to have these discussions, I will either be met with suppression to stop talking about it or a teacher will just flat-out ignore it's happening,” he says.
They all say they enjoy the classes and their academic experience at LASA. But despite that, Citlalli says she’s considered transferring back to her neighborhood school.
“My dad is the one who is more like – 'You should go to LASA; this will give you better opportunities,'” she says. “My mom is more like – 'Well, whatever you need.' Because it was affecting my mental health for a while.”
The students have been attending school board meetings over the last few months, sharing their experiences with the district. They say more high schools should have advanced classes and opportunities, so kids all over the city – from all different backgrounds – can be given the chance to excel.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Somaya Jimenez-Haham's last name as Jimenez-Itham.