Following a change in its admissions policy, Raisbeck Aviation High School’s class of 2020 will be more diverse than any other in the history of the high-performing Highline District school.

Share story

For most of its nearly 12-year history, Raisbeck Aviation High School, a public school in Tukwila that works to prepare students for careers in aviation and aerospace, has been largely male and white. Last year, just 35 percent of the school’s 429 students were female, and 38 percent were racial minorities.

Come next fall, all that will change.

While essays, interviews and character references had been used in past years to decide who would be a good fit for the school, this year’s nearly 400 applicants were entered into a lottery to determine who would get a seat.

And the makeup of next fall’s freshman class? Fifty-six percent male and 44 percent female, and only about 28 percent white.

Though some students and parents have raised concerns about the new system, one thing is certain: The 105 students in next year’s freshman class will better reflect the population the school serves. In the Highline School District as a whole, nearly half the students are female, and three-quarters are racial minorities.

“Being a public school system, you have to have an equitable and defensible system,” Superintendent Susan Enfield said. “Because we have more students each year than we have seats for, the [school] board and I have to be able to look any parent and student in the eye and say, ‘You have an equal chance of getting into this school.’”

The decision also followed a complaint from the parent of an Asian student, alleging the interview process was discriminatory. Although the student had been in Highline’s highly capable program, her father said she didn’t receive enough points on the application or interview rubrics.

Enfield said district officials already had been thinking about changing the admissions policy before that complaint was filed last July, and she and the Highline School Board determined that no discrimination occurred in that case. But the move to the lottery system ended a state investigation into the matter.

“The concerns signaled to us that we needed to find a solution, or that solution would be determined for us by an outside entity,” Enfield said.

Since its beginnings in 2004, Aviation has been a selective school. As one of the few aviation-themed schools in the country, it shares resources with The Museum of Flight and offers mentors and internships in aerospace companies. It’s consistently ranked as one of the top schools in the state. And in recent years, it has received about three applicants for every seat, with its students coming from all over the Puget Sound region.

But under the old application process, the school has long had both a gender and ethnic imbalance. It also was never able to reach a goal of 51 percent of students coming from within the district.

School and district officials said no explicit or implicit bias affected past admissions decisions, but there was no way to be entirely objective when judging each student’s commitment to the school and whether he or she would be a good fit.

Each year, they said, many applicants have been children of people who work in the aviation and aerospace industry, so the demographics mirrored that industry, which long has been “a white male world,” said social-studies teacher Troy Hoehne.

“But it’s changing, and it’s appropriate that the school change with it,” he said. “I don’t think you would find a staff member who wouldn’t say we need more gender equality, we need to have a diversity plan that is more in tune with the population around us.”

Enfield said a lottery significantly reduces “the subjectivity to determine who gets in and who doesn’t.”

Along with changing the policy at Aviation, the district also changed its admissions process for two other schools that had used applications — CHOICE Academy and Big Picture.

Karl Nielsen, 17, an Aviation senior and student-body vice president, has served as a student ambassador on the interview teams.

During the previous interview process, a panel of students, school staff and alumni would speak with applicants in groups of four, asking each one questions about their interest in aviation. After the interview, applicants would write a reflection and rank their commitment to the school from 1 to 10.

The admissions team then evaluated each student’s commitment to aviation and aerospace, and whether they would be well suited to the school.

“The way the system worked, it wasn’t perfect, and everybody knew it,” Nielsen said. “But it did get us a wide range of different people who had one common interest in aerospace or STEM [science, technology, engineering and math].”

Going through hundreds of applications and interviews was also “a tremendous amount of work,” said Principal Bruce Kelly.

In addition to moving to a lottery process this year, the school also allotted 55 of the freshman seats for students from the Highline district, 20 for those who live in Seattle, and 30 for others outside the Highline or Seattle district boundaries.

Enfield cited Delta High School in Pasco and Tesla STEM High School in Redmond as other high-performing, STEM-based schools that use a lottery system.

But the lottery solution meant some students who dreamed of going to the school, and felt they had a strong chance based on commitment and interest, didn’t get in.

“When you talk about the numbers and you don’t have students in front of you, it’s easy,” said math teacher Michael Gudor. “But when you meet a student who would be perfect for the school, but they didn’t get in because they weren’t chosen, it’s hard.”

One of those students is an eighth grader who is already set on a career in aviation.  His family moved to Seattle so he could go to the school.  Yet when the lottery results were posted in late February, he was low on the Seattle waiting list.

“There’s absolutely no chance I’m getting in,” he said.

Within Aviation, some students have wondered if the school will change under the lottery system, and whether there would be a rift between the newcomers and the students admitted through the interview system.

“I was unsure about what the lottery would mean for the school and the culture within,” said senior Kory Watson, 18, of Des Moines.

Now, he said, he and other students have learned more about the lottery approach and its potential benefits.

“The more diverse culture that the lottery will bring to the school next year will be very positive,” he said. “I am confident that next year’s freshman class will be a very positive addition to the school and will change the culture for the better.”