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FEATURE The Cream of Every Crop What Other States Can Learn from the Ten Percent Plan BY MICHAEL MAY The top ten percent plan, a policy that promotes diversity at Texas state universities by admitting the top of each graduating high school class, is like a unicycle: It may have been simple to design, but it’s very difficult to ride.The plan continues to roll forward, succeeding in bringing diverse groups of students to the state’s flagship schools, but its implementation remains a balancing act, and its effects on the education system are still debated. The debate is quickly spreading beyond the Texas border, as California and Florida implement percent plans of their own, and critics of affirmative action nationwide begin to tout percent plans as the race-neutral admissions criteria of the future. Within Texas, meanwhile, educators have learned that for a percent plan to succeed, it must be bolstered by a complex of initiatives to address recruitment and funding. Earlier this spring at Travis High School, a working-class, largely Latino school in Austin, the top ten percent seniors seemed blissfully unaware of the controversies surrounding the policy. Of this year’s 31 top ten percenters at Travis High, most are Latino, most received free or reduced lunch and many are in the first generation of their family to go to college. One of those students is Erica Gonzales, who grinned about her plan to enroll at the University of Texas at Austin first person in her family going to college: “That’s why it was so important that I go,” she said. Dolores Escamilla will also be attending UT, joining her sister, who was in the top ten percent of her class. Knowing she had a future at college, Escamilla said, inspired her to take classes that challenged her. Laura Benitez said the plan helped make college seem like a real possibility, even though she had no family members to help her through the bewildering application process. “It felt like there was this huge space between high school and college. I wasn’t sure what steps I needed to follow to get there,” she said. “But with the top ten percent plan I realized I just had to come to class, study hard for tests and stuff, and not fall behind.” For young Latinos at Travis High, the top ten percent plan is about being rewarded for working hard, not about righting a history of discrimination. But State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, who sponsored percent-plan legislation, vividly remembers when UT was virtually all white. “A lot of people who don’t go through it don’t know how hard it is:’he says. “I was born here. I went to segregated schools, and I didn’t want anyone to have to go through that again:’ W hen the 1996 barred state-support ed schools in Texas Hopwood decision from using affirmative action in college admissions, recruitment and scholarships, veterans of the civil rights movement were dismayed. But even with affir mative action, UT, the flagship school most affected by the decision, had never come close to living up to its motto “We’re Texas.” The school remained virtually all white into the 1970s, and Latino and African American enrollment had peaked under affirmative action at 12.7% and 4% respectively, in a state where these groups make up 32 and 11.5% of the total popu lation and an even high er proportion of its high school students. 7/6/01 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 5