Discussing Diversity by Design with Blackstone Valley Prep Charter School
Recruiting a Diverse Student Body at Your School
As schools of choice, charter schools are not structurally constrained by residential zoning and segregation, and they have a greater ability to recruit for and maintain a diverse student body.
As such, many innovative charter schools have intentionally pursued efforts to integrate students from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. They have employed a variety of approaches to promoting racial and economic integration including recruitment, location selection, weighted admissions, pedagogy, and school culture.
Lory Pilchik interviewed Chiv (‘Chu’) Heng, Director of Operations at Blackstone Valley Prep (BVP) Mayoral Academy in Rhode Island, to discuss BVP’s approach to ‘diversity by design.’ Chiv originally joined BVP in 2010, then moved to New York where he worked as a Director of Information Systems for Democracy Prep for several years before returning to his home state and rejoining BVP in July of 2015.
Lory Pilchick: What are your primary responsibilities at your school?
Chiv Cheng: I oversee network level operations, which includes technology and infrastructure, data operations, management coaching, and most recently, recruitment and enrollment.
LP: Why were recruitment and enrollment brought together under your leadership?
CC: The recruitment and enrollment functions were brought together to create and implement a more integrated, cohesive strategy and infrastructure. One of the first things that we did was to automate the process through the SchoolMint platform. Like most other charter networks, we have limited resources and were looking for ways to improve efficiency. Over time, we see recruitment and enrollment being decentralized again, once it becomes a more standard part of our operations.
LP: One of the hallmarks of BVP is ‘Diversity by Design.’ What does this mean?
CC: Valuing diversity is an organizational priority and a core belief shared across our network. BVP believes that preparing scholars for the world beyond means experiencing the diversity of the world we live in today. By design, our network is intentionally diverse, as reflected in the student population, as well as in the instructional content.
We accept students from four unique sending districts: two from the traditionally higher-income, predominantly white communities of Cumberland and Lincoln, and two from the predominantly lower-income communities of Central Falls (whose student population is 75% Latino) and Pawtucket (where the student body is roughly one-third white, one-third Latino, and one-third black). Bringing together scholars from four neighboring communities allows us to create opportunities for them to share experiences, come together in classrooms, and connect across both racial and socioeconomic lines of difference.
LP: What are the benefits of an intentionally diverse model?
CC: Like most of our peers in the charter sector, we believe that all kids can learn and be successful. We also believe that it is vital that we overcome the concentrated poverty that exists in school systems that can affect outcomes.
LP: How do you put ‘Diversity by Design’ into practice?
CC: In support of creating socioeconomic diversity, we provide an equal number of seats to each of our four communities. Moreover, our admissions lottery is weighted to ensure that at least 50% of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL). Across BVP’s current campuses, roughly 65% of students are low income. The largest racial/ethnic groups are Latino students, who make up roughly 40-60% of students on each campus, and white students, who constitute 30-40% of the student body. Since we support a broader geographic area, BVP provides transportation for all students who attend, which we arrange and fund out of per-pupil dollars.
LP: Are there any issues or concerns about having lottery that has special weighting for FRPL and diversity?
CC: The founding of this Mayoral Academy had the urban/suburban pairing explicitly written into the charter. Running a lottery where we have to reserve an equal number of seats for each of our four communities while also maintaining preferences for students who qualify for FRPL can be challenging.
LP: Beyond the statistics, how is diversity defined and maintained at BVP?
CC: Diversity is cultural. We strive to maintain and foster ‘working diversity’ and mutual respect by promoting culturally responsive teaching and incorporating diverse topics into our curriculum, as well as by engaging parents and the community in discussions on diversity. Furthermore, our definition of diversity extends beyond race and socioeconomics and extends into all areas – from gender and sexual preference to extracurricular orientation.
LP: How does your emphasis on a diverse student population play out in your practical efforts around student recruitment?
CC: Our diversity mission has a significant impact on our student recruitment strategies. It’s important that our prospective students and our families are supportive of and interested in this type of diverse culture. We try to be very upfront about our culture to ensure that we get this type of alignment. It’s a critical part of our outreach and marketing, which has an educational component to it and conveys our values. We also reinforce the culture again through the enrollment process and in our conversations with families. Intentional diversity is, unfortunately, a unique approach to schools, but also helps us to really distinguish ourselves in our student recruitment efforts.
LP: What are some of the challenges you face in outreach across the different communities that you serve?
CC: Some of the communities that we serve are more informed than others about their options and have a greater ability to navigate the system. As a result, we focus more of our efforts on the lower income, urban community that has more challenges with access. We create more opportunities for them to engage with us and vice versa and we focus more on raising awareness of what we offer. At the same time, if we are to maintain a diverse student population, we need to be seen as a compelling option for all students from all communities. Ultimately, BVP needs to consistently demonstrate that it is a high quality school that anyone would want to send their own children to. And in fact, BVP’s Executive Director and almost all of the staff who have school-aged children do send their own children to BVP.
LP: What are some of the supports that you provide to the families in communities with less access to information about their school choices and with limited access to the internet?
CC: Automating our application and enrollment system has not only streamlined our administrative systems, but also expanded access to parents. We needed to have a mobile application since many of our families don’t have internet access. Providing a mobile experience in multiple languages has been a huge step forward in supporting diverse recruitment. We also have kiosks set up in all of our school locations. We work with community partners to build awareness, and we have phone support to address application-related questions.
LP: What are some of the top recruitment challenges?
CC: Interest in BVP is not equal across all 4 communities. Lincoln, for example, is an affluent community with a strong public school district. Parents who choose to put their children on a bus across town will do so because they see something in BVP that they’re not able to get in the traditional public school. There are parents in this community who value our cultural curriculum and academic success, but it’s an ongoing internal conversation around how best to recruit those families who already have access to choices for high quality schools. And there are conversations we continue to have around how much energy to spend on convincing parents that diversity is good for their children.
LP: What are the key considerations for (charter) schools who are contemplating stepping up their efforts around recruiting a diverse student body?
CC: It is challenging and has to be intentional. There are transportation and facilities considerations, and schools need to work hard to ensure that students’ and families’ values are aligned with the school’s values. There is so much unique, local context that goes into a school’s ability to recruit a diverse student body. Every area is unique and some areas might be more conducive than others. At the end of the day, you still need to be a high-quality school, offering strong academics, a safe and healthy environment, and a commitment to all kids. It’s ultimately about school choice and providing high quality options for students to achieve success in college and beyond.