Tiana Headley kept track of how many times she and her black classmates at MAST Academy Virginia Key heard non-black students use the N-word and make other racist comments.
Rapping along to songs without skipping a beat. Being dared to yell it at a black classmate. Asking if they were having fried chicken for lunch.
They stuck with her into her senior year when she decided to pen a 3,000-word essay on how MAST Virginia Key, founded nearly three decades ago to get minority, low-income and female students interested in marine science-related careers, was straying from its roots.
It showed in the school's demographics: Since the school reached an agreement with the Village of Key Biscayne to set aside seats with preference for residents in 2012, the proportion of low-income students fell by about half, from 37 percent of the student body to about 19 percent during the most recent school year, according to state data. The percentage of black students dropped from 10 percent to less than 3 percent out of about 1,480 students.
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"I found irony in the fact that this school has historically had a mission to create a diverse place," said Headley, 18. "Where no matter what income you were, no matter what race you were, no matter what background you were, it was a school with passionate faculty, passionate students."
The essay, too long to print in The Beacon, the school's student newspaper, published online in January. It racked up so many views it crashed the website — a first for the student paper. Then came a deluge of online comments: some supportive, congratulating Headley on her hard work and courage. Others had swastikas and racist comments littered with the N-word.
"This is the first story that really has caused such a stir," said newspaper adviser Mayling Ganuza. "It really sparked so much discussion among the student body."
Ganuza, a 1999 graduate of MAST, said the school has changed from when she was a student. She said that while she hadn't personally witnessed students using the N-word, students have told her that it's an ongoing issue at the school.
"The current student body is unaware of the school's history, use of the N-word is rampant, and swastikas are frequently drawn in bathroom stalls," she wrote in Headley's application for the Miami Herald Silver Knight award. "Tiana's essay has opened up debate and empowered her to have a say in shaping the collective future of the school."
Headley won the Silver Knight award for social science in May.
Region Superintendent John Pace said the allegations detailed in Headley's essay were not brought to the attention of administrators before the essay published but have been investigated. However, after this story published, Headly told the Miami Herald she wrote about the rise of racial slurs at MAST in a May 2017 issue of the student newspaper.
MAST is now working with the Anti-Defamation League and an organization called Student Voices to implement cultural sensitivity into lessons school-wide next year.
"From the perspective of the administrators, they were shocked because they didn’t know that was happening because they didn’t know students were having those experiences," Pace said. "For the administrative team it was actually enlightening to have a student speak up and speak out from their perspective."
Around the same time Headley began working on her essay, the Miami-Dade school district began to take a hard look at how to boost the school's disproportionately low enrollment of black and low-income students.
Since 2015, the district has worked with MAST, Coral Reef Senior High and TERRA Environmental Research Institute — all schools with district-wide magnet programs and low percentages of students from low-income families — to develop recruitment plans. Informational postcards were sent to eighth graders who lived in 12 ZIP codes in North Miami-Dade that are largely poor and black.
In October, the school board green-lighted a revised magnet policy to give preference to students in those ZIP codes. They must still meet the academic criteria, but their applications hold more weight in the lottery process.
Applications and invitations from those areas inched upward. Out of the 94 unique applications for MAST for the 2017-18 school year from those ZIP codes, 25 received invitations. This year, MAST received 25 more applications, but that only resulted in nine more invitations. So far, 18 students have accepted seats.
District staff are surveying students to find out why they declined seats.
"We didn’t do as well as we’d like to do," said Sylvia Diaz, assistant superintendent of innovation and school choice. She said 1,200 students applied for MAST's maritime magnet countywide.
"The recruiting in and of itself is hard, especially in a school like MAST," she said. "You have so many applicants that if you’re going to try to increase the number of African American kids at that school, you’re going to have to get a lot more African American kids [to apply]."
She pointed out that MAST's franchises, campuses in Homestead, Jose Marti in Hialeah and FIU's Biscayne Bay campus that offer other magnet programs, have a much more diverse applicant pool. The campuses are 16 percent, 10 percent and 23 percent black, respectively. All exceed the district's average for students whose family income qualified them for free or reduced-price lunch.
Diaz says it's too early to tell what MAST Virginia Key's demographics will look like this fall, as the school does not yet know which existing students will be returning. She said the impact of the recruitment efforts and weighted applications will be small "at best," as the demographics continue to look more like Key Biscayne; residents make up two-thirds of the student body.
"Hopefully, next year with a full recruitment cycle and with data from this year’s application cycle to inform our processes, we will achieve better outcomes," she said.