The demographic gap: racial, gender and cultural diversity in Riverside’s engineering program

Engineering students collaborating in one of Seth Stalling’s digital engineering classes. Photo by Isaac Janiak Stein

By: Isaac Janiak Stein and Tate Gasch

Nadia Molina was no different than many hundreds of eighth-graders in their final year before high school. 

She recalls sitting in class and hearing the director of the Riverside engineering program speaking to her school, Brogden Middle School, about the program, as they looked ahead to their years of high school. 

Molina didn’t choose to join the engineering program, but did attend Riverside. After two years at Riverside outside of the program, she signed up for a civil engineering and architecture class that happened to be one of the engineering courses. 

She loved the class, and after discussing with her teacher, Seth Stallings, and Tim Velegol, the head of the engineering program, they were able to work out a way for her to join the program, even though she was in her junior year, because of how interested she was in architecture, and because there happened to be an open slot for her in the class.

Molina, a female student of color, is one of the top students in her class. 

Now, as a member of the program, she doesn’t feel represented. 

“The only time I feel represented is when I’m with my friends, Nya and Liv (Olivia). Nya being mixed Black and Brazilian and Liv being Jewish and Russian,” she said. “Those are the types of diversity I surround myself with. But when I first walked into the program, my junior year… I remember being at that meeting and it was just fully white.” 

“When you see a bunch of white men, who you’ve been told they’re a little bit harsh… I’ve had to deal with that my entire life within schools; it’s not something I want to put myself through.”

When Molina first heard about the program in middle school, she said it wasn’t very appealing to her. “If you look at the actual diversity makeup of Riverside, we have way more black people than we do white people in general,” she said. “The two biggest groups are black and Hispanic, so it was kind of interesting to see how the engineering program kind of diverted from that.”

She continued: “When you see a bunch of white men, who you’ve been told they’re a little bit harsh… I’ve had to deal with that my entire life within schools; it’s not it’s not something I want to put myself through.”

What is Riverside engineering?

Well known for its advanced classes and impressive students, the Riverside PLTW engineering program currently has 425 students.

Students within the program are required to take four engineering classes, at least one every school year. Half of all students in the program take more than the required four engineering classes, but all students still take the majority of their high school courses outside of the program.

The program has been awarded the Project Lead The Way (PLTW) distinguished school recognition for the past 4 years, and many of its teachers have won individual awards for their exemplary engineering teaching. The program takes pride in its accomplishments, especially in sending hundreds of students to collegiate engineering programs. In the last five years, 96% of engineering students went on to attend college.

PLTW is a national non-profit organization that provides training for teachers and courses for students from preschool through high school. Riverside’s association with PLTW gives teachers and students access to class resources, curriculums, and funding, along with the funding the program receives from the federal government for its Career and Technical Education (CTE) from the Carl D. Perkins Act. 

A lottery-based magnet program, the Riverside engineering program is a pathway within Riverside High School allowing students to take engineering courses. The program has been certified as a PLTW school since 2008. 

All rising Durham Public Schools (DPS) high school students can apply to the program through the DPS magnet lottery, where magnet programs and schools are ranked by choice by each applying student. It is a blind lottery, meaning applicants are not evaluated, and it doesn’t involve any preference save for students who are in the Riverside district and choose the program as their first choice.

The deciding factor: “I’m the only Hispanic kid in my class.”

The Riverside Engineering program has no lack of marketing and advertising in the Durham area. It’s the reason many families choose to send their kids to Riverside. Despite its strong academics and high grade standards, the program is not without its faults. Many have claimed that its lack of diversity and multitude of funding give it an unfair advantage and an elite mindset that negatively impacts the rest of the school. 

In order to pinpoint where all of this begins, one would have to go back to the middle school level. Tim Velegol, the engineering program director, visits a select number of middle schools every year to encourage students to apply for Riverside. Middle schools like Lakewood Montessori and Brogden Middle are visited practically every year. 

Some students hear about the program in other ways, like sophomore William Rodriguez-Ayala. “[I heard about it] from one of my friends who is a junior now. He told me, like, ‘oh you should come do this.’’ Rodriguez-Ayala didn’t exactly want to do it, but his parents urged him to apply. “Other opportunities that kids don’t have, I have because I am in the engineering program,” he said. 

Rodriguez-Ayala knew he’d be in the minority, but he didn’t expect to see a visible difference between the program and the rest of the student body. 

“I’m the only Hispanic kid in [my engineering class], and it’s really hard,” Rodriguez-Ayala said. Only two of his friends are in the program. “I would like to see more diversity in the teachers. More teachers of color.” 

Program leadership: who is Tim Velegol?

Tim Velegol began his time at Riverside nearly 16 years ago as an engineering teacher in a loosely constructed cluster of engineering CTE classes. 

A few years after Velegol joined the Riverside staff, in 2008 the engineering program was accredited as an official engineering school by PLTW. Upon accreditation, Velegol and Adam Davidson, a long-time engineering teacher who joined the staff just a year after Velegol and recently left the school after 15 years, began building up the program. 

Tim Velegol poses in a Christmas hat. The head of the program has been at Riverside since 2006. Photo from REPAC

From a loosely established and undistinguished program to one with 5 teachers commanding 10 engineering and computer science classes, with a laboratory, 3D Printers and other high-tech machines, the Riverside engineering program has seen incredible growth under Velegol’s leadership.

After many years serving as an engineering teacher and in an administrative role, Velegol shifted to a solely administrative position that allowed him to spend his time completely as the program director. He now handles everything from enrollment in the program, to assisting engineering students with transcripts, classes, and scholarships, helping to secure funding, facilitating PLTW testing, running the Riverside Engineering Parent Action Committee (REPAC), and much more. 

Demographic comparisons

Riverside High School, at the beginning of this school year, had 1,731 students. 39 percent were Hispanic/Latinx, 29 percent Black/African American, 26 percent White, and 6 percent other. Comparatively, in 2021, the Riverside engineering program was comprised of 68 percent white students and 32 percent minority students. The demographic data provided by the program did not differentiate between Black and Latinx students.

The discrepancy between Riverside and the engineering program’s racial demographics is not new. In fact, over the last five years the gap has only grown, with the program’s minority population trending downward from its peak of 54 percent of the program to what it is now, 32 percent of the program. Even at the minority population’s peak over the last five years, coming in 2017, it still didn’t match that of Riverside’s general student population.

Graph created by Isaac Janiak Stein. Data from Riverside engineering

While Velegol said he’s spent a lot of time thinking about this issue, the program director couldn’t provide many explanations outside of speculation.  “I just don’t know,” Velegol remarked, when asked what caused the downward trend. “I hear a lot about the importance of having teachers who look like students. And I will tell you that since Angelica Spratley left us, that happens to coincidentally go along with those numbers that you’re looking at right there, because she was the last African American female that we had on our staff. And she left [in 2017].”

Spratley taught in the engineering program for three years, teaching digital engineering and computer science. Velegol described her as a “phenomenal” teacher saying she had “enthusiasm” and “energy” for the topics she taught. Spratley, a woman of color, was the last woman or teacher of color to teach in the program when she left in 2017. All program hires since then have been white men.

Although Velegol acknowledged the possibility of Spratley’s departure causing the decline in the program’s minority population, he questioned the importance of having teachers who look like minority students: “I have my doubts about how important that plays into a minority student’s decision to a class. But… it’s certainly worth looking at.”

As a student of color in the program, Molina has a different view. “Representation is important. Because sometimes when you’re looking at a white-dominated space, a white male-dominated space, like engineering in general, you don’t really think about a black engineer.” 

Molina continued, speaking strongly about how significant it is to “have someone that looks like you teaching the class, who is able to understand where you’re coming from, who’s able to show you things that you may not have known.” Additionally, she expressed the importance of having teachers who grew up in Durham or a similar neighborhood who can relate to their students.

Velegol responded to Molina’s perspective on the importance of representation, addressing representation as a factor in minority students’ decision to join the program or not.

“I don’t want to pooh-pooh that because I know it definitely influences some. I just don’t know, on the scale of the numbers, how much that weighs in, but it’s definitely a factor.”

Graphics by Isaac Janiak Stein

Despite the lack of diversity in the program’s staff and the downward trend in minority students Riverside engineering is much more diverse than the national engineering industry.

According to zippia.com, whose data is verified against the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Census data, the engineering industry in the US is around 71 percent White, 11 percent Asian, 8 percent Hispanic/Latino, and only 3 percent Black or African American. 

This blatant lack of diversity is even worse for female engineers in the industry.

In 2022, 87.5 percent of professional engineers are male, while only 12.5 percent are female.

This contrasts with the gender gap in Riverside’s engineering program which, while being significantly more diverse than the industry, still doesn’t mirror the female population of the whole school.

At the beginning of the current school year, male students made up 57 percent of Riverside’s student body, with female students making up 43 percent. In 2021, the engineering program was 63 percent male and 37 percent female. 

Graph by Isaac Janiak Stein. Data from Riverside engineering

Over the last five years, the program has been 69% male and 31% female. The 37% female enrollment, coming most recently in 2021, is the highest in the last five years, contrasting with the 31 percent enrollment overall, and the 24 percent enrollment in 2018. 

With the female population on a general upward trend, it’s nearing the school’s overall gender demographics and is continuing to eclipse the engineering industry on gender diversity.

Velegol expressed his surprise on how well the engineering program has done with female diversity compared to the industry. “I’ve been stunned by the progress we’ve made on that front,” he said. “ I never expected based on national demographic trends… that we would ever… have close to 40% females. And I think that’s attributable to a staff that’s very open to the importance of that diversity.”

Student perspectives: “There’s really extreme polarization between the program and the rest of the school”

Engineering students walk through the cafeteria and past a few social studies classrooms, Riverside’s Restorative Practices Center and the ROTC hangar to attend their classes. At the end of the 160 hall are 4 large classrooms. One has 3-D printers, another thirty desktops and a laser cutter. Most academic departments are grouped together at Riverside, but some students believe geography isn’t the only thing that separates the program from the rest of the school. “There’s really extreme polarization between the engineering program and the rest of the school,” said senior Millie Anderson. 

“I look in the classes and it is just so striking, like, the populations and the demographics are just not representative of Riverside and I think that is really disappointing in a school that should encourage that [diversity].”

Anderson is a senior who is currently ranked 31st in her class and headed to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill next year. She isn’t in the engineering program, but learned a lot about the program from students in her honors and AP classes who are.

Anderson aspired to graduate at or near the top of her class, but not being in the engineering program made that challenging. During her freshman year, ninth graders were only allowed to take one Advanced Placement class, which raises GPA by a point. 

“The biggest thing that bothers me is the class rank thing,” she said. “It doesn’t really matter, but when you are working really hard and performing very highly, your class rank doesn’t reflect that,” she said. 

Freshman typically take AP Human Geography, but engineering students receive AP credit (and weighted grades) for Introduction to Engineering and Design, too. 

“Because they had that advantage freshman year, and we were never able to catch up,” Anderson explained. 

Frustrated, Anderson felt she had to work harder in school than engineering students to earn the same GPA. She believes that these opportunities are unfair and continues creating a bigger divide. 

“It perpetuates this polarization. It’s really unhealthy [to] foster an environment where there is this program with a whole bunch of white kids and they are the ‘smart ones,’” she said.

Anderson explained that people are constantly surprised when she reveals that she is not in the program. 

“It gets in their head, and they definitely don’t think I am as smart,” she said. She notices a difference between how she is interacted with before and after her peers find out she is not enrolled in Engineering classes. 

“I’m not going to take eight, nine, ten classes on something I hated and would never use. I just don’t understand why you would put yourself through that just because of the way it looks.” 

Anderson thinks some students enroll in the program because of its reputation, not because they love engineering. 

“I place a lot of value on my learning,” she says. “So I am not going to take eight, nine, ten classes on something I hated and would never use. I just don’t understand why you would put yourself through that just because of the way it looks.” 

Within the engineering program, students acknowledge a less extreme divide. Genesis Sanchez, in particular, is a third-year engineering student who will be starting her senior year in the fall. She knows she has an advantage within the school, and is very grateful for it. 

Sanchez has taken 4 PLTW classes so far. “I think people are really proud to be part of the program,” she said. “It is a great program and it gets a lot of funding. She explains that she does not see a heavy elitist attitude within the program and has been very happy with her experience so far.  

Sanchez admits that she understands how the rest of the school could have a negative view on the program. “There are different opportunities for engineering kids versus kids not in the program, so I can see where that comes off [as elitist],” she says. 

Within her friend group, a majority of them are in the program. “[The disperties] do come up sometimes,” she says. Sanchez credits the dramatic difference in demographics as the most concerning issue in the program. “I think [regular RHS students] are confused sometimes when they see more opportunities given to us,” she says. Sanchez refers to the members of PLTW as  already privileged students for the most part, and the advantages that they are given only strengthen the divide. 

Sanchez does think that her class is given an advantage because of their placement. “I love Mr. Velegol. He finds opportunities for us. He is really great,” she says. 

“I know for a fact that if I was not in the Engineering Program I wouldn’t have the same opportunities given to me.” 

From student to teacher: Connor Bolen’s perspective

Before Connor Bolen was a PLTW Engineering Teacher, he was a regular Riverside student.

In 2005, Bolen attended Brogden Middle School. In his final year, his class was visited by Tim Velegol, who is now the head of the program.

“Mr. Velegol came and talked about the Engineering program, though he didn’t do it nearly as big as he does now.”

In 2008, Bolen left Brogden for Riverside and fell in love with engineering his freshman year. 

“After I took my first class here, I loved it,” he said. 

In his senior year, he decided to attend North Carolina State University with a focus on Engineering. He found himself challenged in the NC State Engineering program, which is one of the most prestigious in the country. The U.S. News and World Report ranked it 25th in the nation in Engineering programs. 

“The way NC State does things, you get in as an Engineering student, but then you have to go through these ‘Weed-Out Classes’. I did not get through Physics.” 

Bolen did not get the 75 or higher needed to pass the class, however, he didn’t give up on his passion for Engineering. “I was looking for another major that still applied a lot of the things I loved,” he said. His new major was Technology Engineering and Design Education with a Licensure Concentration in Graphic Communications minor. 

This was a catalyst for his switch to teaching, which led to his return to his alma mater, Riverside High School. 

Engineering teacher Connor Bolen assists students in one of his Principles of Engineering classes. Photo by Tate Gasch

He was hired by Velegol in the fall of 2017 and began teaching Drafting 1, which is the only non-AP class he has taught. 

He transitioned to teaching the Principles of Engineering class in 2018, which is commonly advertised as a “weed-out-course” by Velegol. As students prepare for the class in the summer, they are continuously reminded of the challenges they will face. Over the break, Velegol sends out emails with updates about the upcoming school year that inform students of the summer preparation they will need to do in order to succeed in the class. This summer prep is extensive and covers a lot of the basic math used in the program. 

Bolen’s goals for the engineering program are ambitious indeed. PLTW has a multitude of courses that they offer, but Riverside only teaches 7. “I would love to offer all the engineering classes, because there are some we can’t offer and some that require a lot of teacher dependency.” 

The Riverside Engineering Program is known for more than just it’s difficult classes. Although the student population of the program is not proportional to the rest of the RHS student body, it is significantly better than that of the entire Engineering Industry. In the last 5 years, the Riverside Engineering Program’s demographics have fluctuated almost 20%. 

  On the diversity front, Bolen’s second goal is to offer an engineering track that would begin in elementary school and lead all the way to high school. He thinks this would help combat some of the obvious inequities that have caused students of color to be in the dramatic minority as opposed to the full Riverside population. 

What is causing this disparity?

Riverside engineering is well known for its perceived breadth of resources in college readiness and engineering. The program boasts a variety of engineering technologies including over a dozen 3D printers, a state of the art laser cutter, various high-tech woodworking machines, circuitry, and laptops capable of running large engineering programs, many of which can be credited to Davidson and Velegol’s fundraising efforts since the program’s 2008 accreditation. The program also boasts an engineering lab created by Davidson that houses much of this technology, and is where many engineering students’ have class and carry out their projects. 

Along with these engineering resources, the program’s students get help regarding college readiness, almost exclusively from Velegol. The program director spends hours every week assisting students with schedule changes, transcript requests, various scholarships, volunteering, summer opportunities, testing, and even more. Much of this is supplementing the lack of help from a greatly overworked and understaffed group of counselors at Riverside. 

Having heard about the program from Velegol on one of his middle school visits, Molina felt he only advertised the program’s hard classes, but none of its other beneficial attributes. She found this to be a deterrent to joining the program.

“I feel like if you talk more about the benefits of past engineering students and talk about the opportunities within the program, and how you can actually build yourself up to the career that you want, even if it’s not in engineering, that’s way more important than what was said.”

Molina continued by sharing her perspective after joining the program in her junior year. 

“Mr. Velegol sends out an email every week, even more than every week sometimes, where he’s giving opportunities for the students within the program,” Molina said. “I wish I knew about these my freshman and sophomore year, because I would have been able to do them, but we didn’t have privy to that information.”

Molina spoke further on Velegol’s “recruitment” for the program by comparing it to how the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) was presented to her in middle school.

“I feel like the ROTC program did a better job with recruiting because they give the idea of; you can develop leadership skills, you can be a part of a community… they give the idea that the military will pay for your college education. And I feel like that’s very appealing to minorities because, a lot of the time, with the way that the US is set up, minorities are disadvantaged. And those things are more appealing than when you hear about the engineering program.” 

Certainly a benefit felt by students within the program comes from college and career assistance from the staff, mostly Velegol. Velegol boasts a 10 point plan, which he created for students in the program to help them move towards education, college, and career success and readiness. 

The 10 point plan includes standardized testing like the ACT, PreACT, PreSAT, and ASVAB tests, as well as college exploration activities, and one-on-one discussions with Velegol for every student in their junior and senior year about plans for the future. 

“If I go out and start promoting this, and I’m either hit by a bus, or I retire, and I bring people in under the impression that they do all this great stuff… a huge percentage of that will go up in smoke, if I leave.”

In response to Nadia’s comments on the lack of advertisement on the college readiness portion of the program, Velegol expressed his hesitancy for promoting areas of the program that he himself has solely initiated.

“There’s this idea that somehow the curriculum is all tied up with what Riverside has as a program. And that’s where there’s an error. The day that Tim Velegol retires, those 10 elements that we have… a good half of those could vanish overnight,” he said.  “And so if I go out and start promoting this, and I’m either hit by a bus, or I retire, and I bring people in under the impression that they do all this great stuff… a huge percentage of that will go up in smoke, if I leave.”

Velegol’s hesitance to promote many of the benefits of the program highlights the ways that Velegol feels his program is isolated from DPS and Riverside support.

In many ways Velegol expressed how he feels the engineering program is on its own in the DPS system, and even in Riverside, in terms of structure, support, and any efforts to promote diversity. Overall he consistently iterated his feeling of isolation from the entities above him. 

“The problems that Durham Public Schools face are so intense that I often look at our little silo over here as something that they just don’t spend any time thinking about,” Velegol commented, “Because it’s functioning well enough that with all the larger fires that they’re trying to attend to, they just don’t have the resources as a district to be able to even build on what might be perceived as the success of this program, by trying to support my objectives of trying to diversify the students who get exposed to engineering education.”

Not only does he feel the district is too overwhelmed with greater issues to provide assistance to the program, he also expressed a lack of communication and support structure between him and the middle schools he goes to visit to recruit incoming high school students. 

The importance of access begins with lower levels of education. Students coming into high school with higher math skills or overall knowledge of how to handle an advanced class have a clear advantage when entering the program. 

“We’re not 100% confident that the word gets around about what it’s going to take to be successful in the program

This is not just speculation. Velegol himself conducted a study in 2015 regarding the extent to which students’ level of math education contributes to their success in the PLTW program. While the data is complicated, a clear trend presents itself. Students who come in to high school with a higher level of math education, be it having already taken math 1 (algebra) or math 2 (geometry) in middle school, receive A’s and B’s and perform better on the standardized tests in their engineering classes than students who come in from middle school with a lower level of math knowledge. 

In contrast, the study finds that students’ level of math does not have an impact on attrition or failing classes. Thus while higher levels of previous math education correlates to better test and overall grades, they don’t correlate with lower rates of failing classes or exiting the program. The first correlation, though, does speak to the importance of communication between the program and middle schools in terms of transparency regarding what middle schoolers need to learn in order to enter the program in high school, ready to succeed. 

Regarding this level of communication, Velegol was frank. Responding to the question of whether middle schools understand the level of preparation their students need to be able to succeed in the program, Velegol said: “We’re not 100% confident that the word gets around about what it’s going to take to be successful in the program. But I think all things considered, they do a pretty good job. My only concern is that we don’t have enough kids ready for it.”

“I do believe that there’s an acceptance that where this problem originates, is in K through eight. And once they get here, it’s too late to fix it.”

Not only is DPS hands-off with the engineering program, but Riverside High School is also uninvolved. On the issue of the obvious disparity between the minority population in the school versus the program, and the population’s trend downwards in recent years, Velegol voiced his thoughts on Riverside’s consistent attitude towards the issue of diversity in the program. 

“When you have three African American female principals sit there and tell you, ‘it is what it is’, you start to think, well, none of them would want to go on record saying that, right? Or, at least I would hope they wouldn’t. But the reality is that they [Riverside principals] see that as just a data point, that, if it’s going to be rectified, is out of their hands; which is to say, I do believe that there’s an acceptance that where this problem originates, is in K through eight. And once they get here, it’s too late to fix it.”

The program director said plainly and clearly that he believes the gap in minority participation in the program has not been on Riverside’s principals’ radar as a problem. He mentioned an interaction with Ms. Williams, Riverside’s principal from 2017-2020, whom Velegol noted that “you are not going to find a principal more committed to equity and representation like Ms. Williams was.” Velegol mentioned trying to be in communication with Ms. Williams about “the idea of identifying students of color that could be more prominently celebrated for their achievements.” He said she really liked the idea and thanked him, but when it came down to it, she just didn’t have the time. 

Velegol said this on closing the gap in diversity: “I think that the biggest challenge that we face to closing that gap is finding the human resources available to us to be able to make that difference.”

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