Buying your way in: A look at the degradation of school culture at a top magnet school

The time is 3:37 pm. I am aboard the bus to the Vizcaya train station. Shifting my body toward the window to enjoy the warm rays of sun and crystal blue waters, my commute to and from school is the only moment I truly appreciate attending a beachfront school. When all seems calm, my ears are suddenly met with the heavy bassline of rap blasting from a portable speaker. I usually do not mind when a student establishes an impromptu road trip soundtrack; however, when the songs played mention the n-word and the non-black students aboard sing along with ardor to every word, I immediately sift through the contents of my backpack for noise-canceling headphones.

This is a tame example of the rampant use of the n-word by those of non-black descent at MAST Academy. In cases even more egregious, black students have been called the n-word with genuine malicious intent.

According to the school’s 2017-2018 school profile, two percent of the student body is black. As a magnet school that has historically strived to create a diverse makeup of students from all corners of Miami-Dade County, this percentage is troubling. However, for individuals who are not completely familiar with MAST’s history and the changes it has undergone, one question continues to be unanswered or answered poorly: how did this happen?
MAST Academy was born out of a program known as the Inner City Marine Project (ICMP). The program, created September 1984, sought to acquaint minority (black, Hispanic, female) students of lower socioeconomic status with marine-related careers. In 1984, the project’s first summer program enrolled 15 students from five high schools. By 1988, it had become a year-round program teaching marine-related skills to 4,000 minority students from 46 schools. The project’s mission goes beyond teaching local students skills to work in the local economy.

In the 1980s, three race riots, the deadliest in American history until the 1992 Los Angeles race riots, erupted in Miami. The McDuffie riots, as they were called, were a response to the acquittal of four white police officers in the death of Arthur McDuffie. McDuffie, a black salesman and former Marine, died after he was brutally beaten by the officers once he was seized after giving chase for approximately eight minutes. The black neighborhoods of Overtown, Liberty City, and elsewhere were so outraged by the injustices that prevailed against black residents in Miami that they destroyed their own communities. Residents like lifelong Miamian and former MAST teacher Karen Sutton were affected by the chaos that occurred in these neighborhoods at the time.

“There was a lot of looting. We were under a curfew so, by dark, we could not leave our neighborhoods,” Sutton said. “It [The killing of McDuffie] cracked open some of the tensions that were festering in Miami at the time.”
Sutton also remembers having access to only subpar businesses and facilities in her neighborhood of Westview, Florida, which has always been made up of predominantly black residents.

“Living in that neighborhood, our kids got to see that when you are not of a certain social status, you do not receive the same treatment. My husband was a surveyor who went into affluent neighborhoods of black individuals who did receive good service. That just shows that there was the problem of race and economics,” Sutton said.

Career and college opportunities for black inner-city youth were virtually inaccessible as well in the booming maritime industries and marine science academic community of Miami.

Community leaders in Miami who recognized this plight proposed the ICMP to the Dade School Board. The program started off with organizing several field trips and summer jobs that involved high school students gaining marine science and maritime industry knowledge in engaging ways. In its second year, it expanded to providing educational opportunities for socially and economically disadvantaged elementary, middle and high school students.

Students from several high schools could be placed in laboratory positions at three oceanographic institutions on Virginia Key, Miami. A middle school course in marine skills would frequently entail cruises down the Miami River to raise awareness about careers and businesses located on the river. Coupled with enthusiasm expressed by the students, an expansion of the program was prompted. This expansion came to be MAST Academy.

When the school first opened, it embraced the magnet school concept. Such programs originally emerged in the 1970s as a means of achieving voluntary desegregation, an alternative to busing. This way, black and white students did not have to travel to schools far distances from home simply because of mandatory student assignments. At the core of magnet school enrollment is student choice. Today, magnet programs exist to attract students of different social, economic, ethnic and racial backgrounds to schools with specialized curriculums that focus on a particular theme. These can include mathematics, science, technology, communications or performing arts.

In addition to this system, MAST remained faithful to its mission of exposing minority students to marine science and maritime careers through maintaining its own system of recruitment; the ICMP became the “MAST Outreach” program. This was ultimately an expansion of the program that had been occurring for nearly a decade, as well as a transformation into an articulation tool that would ensure a continuous source of minority applicants to the school.

The school even outlined a sample target for recruitment for the four years leading up to the 1993-1994 school year; this is when the school expected to reach its target enrollment of 550 students. With each set of students accepted into the school over the course of the four years, 33 percent of the total student body would remain black. This was to reflect ethnic demographics of the county at the time. Global Studies teacher Mayling Ganuza vividly remembers how diverse the school was during her student years at MAST in the 90s.

“I remember very clearly the first time I befriended a white kid at the freshman orientation. The elementary and middle schools I attended were nearly 100 percent Hispanic, so attending MAST was my first experience interacting with people who were different than me. I thought it was great! I got to meet kids from all over the county and from different backgrounds- Haitian, Jamaican, African-American, Indian, Pakistani, Colombian,” Ganuza said.

However, the grand plan to reflect the county makeup would meet its sudden demise when U.S. District Judge William Dimitrouleas ruled in 2001 that Miami-Dade County schools had reached “unitary status.” Unitary status meant that a school was officially free of the dual school system of black students and white students; in other words, the court came to the conclusion that the schools were no longer racially segregated. The decision came 30 years after the 1970 order by late U.S. District Judge C. Clyde Atkins for the court to supervise the desegregation efforts of Miami-Dade County schools. Efforts to desegregate were occurring at a snail’s pace and the schools were not found to be in compliance with the Pate v. Dade County School Board ruling. This ruling sought to reduce the number of black students of predominantly black schools by giving them the freedom to choose another school.

By June 30, 2002, schools in the county, including MAST Academy, could no longer have race-conscious programs in place. From then on, the school had difficulty maintaining its range of 33 to 38 percent black students because efforts to actively recruit economically disadvantaged black students came to a halt.

Years later it seems the school is no longer in compliance with the definition of unitary status. Between 1993 and 2006, the percentage of students at the school who identified as black decreased from roughly 33 percent to 18.2 percent.

Just when it seemed that MAST’s ethnic composition proportions were in a downward spiral, the 2012 F-7 proposal to expand the school by 1,100 Key Biscayne prioritized seats proved to be the final tipping point.

The Village of Key Biscayne is the most recent municipality to be incorporated in Miami-Dade County. A population of 13,019, including daytime workers, make up the island according to 2016 United States Census Bureau data. Data from the 2010 census reports that 96.6 percent are white of which 59.5 percent are white-Hispanic; the median household income is $121,434. Many part-time and full-time residents hail from South America and Europe. Residents have also fought for retention of more tax money; it has the lowest tax rate of any municipality in the county.

At the time of the proposal, the Village of Key Biscayne’s local middle school, Key Biscayne K-8, was overcrowded. The school was the only public, Miami-Dade County middle school nearby that was serving the residents. Students also had to travel far to attend their feeder pattern public high school, Coral Gables Senior High School.

“Coral Gables High School, which is the homeschool of Key Biscayne residents, exceeded the statutory distance in the State of Florida Code of Education, and as a consequence, they [Key Biscayne residents] threatened to sue Miami-Dade County Public Schools,” former MAST lead teacher Margaret Haun said.

In response, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho negotiated a proposal with Key Biscayne officials for a project that would meet the concerns of the community. The funding partnership involved the Village paying the $18 million plus cost upfront to build the new facility at MAST and cover renovations for Key Biscayne K-8. The district would then help pay back half of this amount over the course of 10 years. As part of the expansion, two new Cambridge programs would be offered as a second magnet option when applying. Key Biscayne residents would have priority to Cambridge seats. Also incorporated in the plan was the addition of middle school grades, starting with 44 eighth graders from Key Biscayne and 44 students elsewhere for the 2012-2013 school year. Seventh graders would be added once construction was finished; sixth graders would be added the subsequent year.

In addition to a drop in the black student population, the proportion of low-income students fell from 37 percent in 2012 to about 19 percent by 2017. This would be the first time in the history of the United States that a school district sold a public high school to a wealthy community. MAST Academy finds itself existing in a state of extreme irony. A school that was originally designed to serve the needs of the inner city is now serving an island enclave of wealth.

Several wealthy cities are also following suit, paying millions of dollars to accommodate their students into the best schools. The city of Coral Gables in Miami-Dade County is considering paying $4.2 million to create 180 more seats for Coral Gables students at Henry S. West Laboratory, or West Lab, a public K-8 center in the area. It is a top-rated magnet school, meaning any student in Miami-Dade County can apply. Therefore, it is troubling to hear that a school meant to accommodate students across the county would be serving one population, and a wealthy one at that. Coral Gables residents, however, argue that no seats would be carved out to serve students of the city; there would simply be an addition of seats.

Given that West Lab has a total enrollment of 348 students, adding 180 students would increase the school population by about 50 percent. This would also result in a decrease in the percentage of low-income students, which currently stands at a third of the student population. Sound familiar?
Schools like MAST Academy, along with West Lab if this proposal falls through, contribute to the rise in schools in Florida and across the country called “apartheid schools.”

A black student’s rate of exposure to white students in Miami-Dade dropped from 10.5 percent to 5.2 percent between 1994 and 2014. This decrease is a result of numerous factors, including housing and income segregation. Miami is still a highly segregated city, with many low-income black residents still living in Overtown, downtown Miami, Little Haiti and Liberty City: all historically black neighborhoods in Miami. The trend of segregation by race and poverty, or double segregation, is most prominent in schools attended by black and Hispanic students. Black and Hispanic students in Florida attend schools with a share of low-income students that is 1.5 percent higher than the share of low-income students in schools with mostly white or Asian students.

While looking at the percentages and other statistics involved in MAST’s extensive timeline of change, it is important not to overlook how the hyper-segregation of this once racially and economically diverse school affects current students. For alumni and former faculty who feared that the culture of MAST would change for the worse, it is maddening to hear that it is steering in that direction.

“When I went to MAST, which was from 2001-2005, the general political climate was much less liberal. Nonetheless, no one would have used racist or gay slurs. The fact that’s happening now in a much more liberal political climate within school is truly horrifying to me as an alumna. We believed in the school as a diverse place, as a place where diversity mattered, and a place that taught us why diversity mattered,” MAST alumna Alexandra Marraccini said.

“Coming of age in such a diverse environment really helped me become the open-minded person I am today. My parents were kind of racist and it’s because of their lack of understanding and fear of others different than themselves. MAST helped me rise above these prejudices because I would see my fellow students as my friends and not simply as the other,” MAST Global Studies teacher Mayling Ganuza said.

The use of racial slurs has become a major issue at MAST. Just in the past school year, a text message group chat in which white male students in the ninth grade were excessively using the n-word was reported to administration. Their punishment: a meeting with the assistant principal, mandatory teaching of educational presentations to their classes and two days of detention. Because the students involved did not direct their language toward a student, their actions were categorized as LEVEL I behavior, which calls for PLAN I consequences. These consequences include but are not limited to detention or another Board-approved in-school program, indoor suspension (SCSI), a student contract and/or Behavior Plan, parent/guardian contact and a student, parents/guardians/staff conference. Behaviors and Range of Corrective Strategies are outlined in the Student Handbook for 2017-2018.
Some infractions involving racist language have been more serious, including black female students being called the n-word to their faces by white male students in the past two school years.

These incidents are a problem that may never make their way outside the MAST realm without solid evidence in the form of testimonies. Teachers, students, alumni, former faculty and administration are cognizant that white male students are actively calling their black peers the n-word or using the word casually in conversation.

However, student victims of racially derogatory language are too afraid to officially go on record for fear of backlash from hostile students. At the school’s November 30, 2017 Educational Excellence School Advisory Council (EESAC) meeting, all those in attendance agreed that such language was growing in prominence. All topics discussed in EESAC meetings are public record. The attendees, Math teacher Dana Yancoskie, Physics teacher Julie Hood, Culinary teacher Ana Plana, History teacher Carlos Couzo and Lead teacher Melissa Fernandez, agreed that this is a matter of school culture. A student representative at the meeting, I proposed inviting a representative from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) to speak to students in the school auditorium about racial slurs.

English teacher Lavetta Ulman took the opportunity to use her teaching of the book, To Kill a Mockingbird, to her ninth graders to open up discussions about the use of racial slurs in the school.

“When I brought it [the use of the n-word] up [students replied], ‘yes, they’re using it.’ A couple of things came up, including that the rappers use it. I said that there are certain things that are indicative of a culture that that culture can say. Memes also came up. I don’t have an Instagram, I don’t have Snapchat, but apparently, there are these memes that are really insensitive. In every class, the culture of our society has come up and what is happening in the leadership of America, along with white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan. The white supremacy came up in every single class,” Ulman said.

The school’s culture is shifting to one of intolerance of many groups historically marginalized in the United States. The group chat in which five students were punished was teeming with sexist, homophobic and racist language. The day after the 2016 presidential election results, Chemistry teacher Tomas Pendola found a sticky note on his classroom door that read “Build that Wall”; Pendola is a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient.

Regulations are clearly outlined to handle these incidents case by case. However, the high rate of these repeated incidents calls for serious action, as well as administration publicly addressing and denouncing all forms of discrimination. The SPLC’s presence in the school is an important step in the right direction.

In addition, teachers and students need to hold each other accountable for derogatory language. Students establishing amongst themselves that such behavior is not tolerated can greatly change the culture of the school.

On a national level, it would be worth revisiting school recruitment statutes for magnet schools. In changing the laws that integrated student populations, schools have once again become segregated. Students gain from being in classrooms with people who are different from them. They are able to learn about different perspectives and develop empathy for people of a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. In a country that is becoming increasingly polarized, the ability to interact and work with a diverse group of people is vital to our national interests.