A teacher finds that small school reform presents opportunities to teach about tracking and inequality
Illustrator: Randall Enos
“I don’t want my son with those kids!” one of the parents shouted.
“Yeah. How are you going to challenge my daughter when these kids can’t even read?” another said. “You can’t make all kids learn at the same rate. That’s unfair.”
The classroom where we held the community meeting on small school reform erupted into finger pointing and shouting as some faculty explained plans to de-track courses for the incoming ninth graders. We were one year into the process of converting to small schools and the parents of the “academically motivated” were turning up the heat.
Our school, Henry Foss High School in Tacoma, Wash., had received a small schools grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation granted $950,000 for professional development and other activities to help us begin converting our comprehensive high school into smaller learning communities.
While other high schools in my district are physically located within their school communities, Henry Foss draws its nearly 2,000 students from both the wealthy Fircrest community that borders it and neighborhoods not well off enough to have formal names other than those on the apartment building billboards. Students are drawn primarily for the International Baccalaureate program (I.B.) that offers a leg up for college credit and a prestigious certificate of merit for those who complete the diploma requirements.
More than half of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches, but some staff members believe this number should be much higher because many of the students avoid being stigmatized or labeled as “poor.” Our school is culturally diverse, with enrollment of African Americans near 30 percent, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders around 28 percent, and recent immigrants from Eastern Europe and other minority groups hovering around 10 percent. Nearly half the students who enter Foss as freshmen do not graduate as seniors. This number parallels national trends, but dropouts are overwhelmingly the non-Fircrest students.
When we undertook small school reform, one tough issue was the integration of students from separate tracks. The grant itself vaguely required that “all” students be provided with a “rigorous” education. Rigor was a requirement, de-tracking our institution was not. The plans for integration came from a few teacher-leaders of the academies. These leaders, in agreement with the administration, saw the need to refocus our schools for equity.
Some parents wanted to ensure that no one would infringe upon their I.B. turf. They didn’t want their “highly capable” students mixed with the “regular” kids. Fircrest parents organized to preserve the prestigious I.B. program. These parents got involved in the small schools work. They went to community meetings where we discussed the focus of the schools; they helped plan booster meetings in the faculty lunchroom; they went to school board meetings to voice their desires that the I.B. courses remain tracked.
In sharp contrast to Fircrest, the other communities whose children attend Foss are fractured: divided by a freeway on one side, a minor league baseball park on the other, a business district choked with fast food restaurants, and the parks and recreation softball fields. These communities, although close in proximity to the affluent one, lack the organizing power of the economically endowed Fircrest neighborhood, and have not generally been involved in the small schools work.
My colleague Liz Dwyer and I saw this small schools grant as an opportunity to organize our school around equity, de-track our high school, and provide quality education for all of our students. The parents of the academically “gifted” had advocates. We thought this reorganization would give us a chance to stand up for the “regular” kids.
As part of the grant our school district gave us eight late-start days, when students would arrive at school late so we could meet as faculty in our academies to discuss the school’s future. By the time students rolled into class in the late morning, I was drained, and my freshman “regular” civics students could tell. I taught two freshman civics courses: The first was full of “high achieving” students, and my second was loaded with so-called “regular” students.
Deshawn,* a student in the latter class, was a curious student who lived in a house that bordered the mall and a Pizza Hut. “What are you guys talking about in those meetings anyway?” he asked. I told him that we were studying how to break our school into smaller learning communities. “So, who shows up?” he asked.
“Well, it’s faculty now.”
“So, you’re gonna decide for us, aren’t you?” he asked. I thought about it. There wasn’t a single student at the meetings. The usual suspects drove the reform: teachers, administrators, and parents of the academically talented. Students were shut out of the process, relegated to the sidelines. We had never asked them about the education they’d like to create or included their dreams and aspirations alongside our own.
Deshawn’s comment made me think twice about what I wanted to teach next. I realized I wanted to include my students in the conversation that was going on around them about their schooling.
I talked to Deshawn the next day: “I’ll show you what we talked about on Monday. We’ll study it.”
With the help of Cheryln Pijanovski, a small schools collaborative coach who was hired by the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) with funding by the Gates Foundation, I organized a civics unit around the study of school. I wanted my freshmen to uncover the hidden curriculum at Foss, to begin to put clothes on the institution that remained invisible. I wanted students to critique the institution in order to create greater equity at our school.
We began the unit on schooling with a role play by Bill Bigelow, [see “Testing, Tracking and Toeing the Line,” in Rethinking Our Classrooms, Vol. 1], which examines the sleepy-eyed monster of tracking, as well as the historical and cultural aspects of power and privilege in public schooling. Bigelow’s role play emphasizes that schools were created to instill patriotism at the expense of questioning, that the tracking of public high schools was used to segregate laborers from leaders, and that biased standardized tests were utilized to justify this stratification. I hoped that my students might begin to imagine how similar stratification exists in some form today in our tracked school. And I wanted them to consider how they might ultimately change these structures to ensure more democratic participation in their own school lives.
After the role play, I gave a PowerPoint presentation with data from our school about the failure rate and the International Baccalaureate program. My presentation showed statistics on student success in the I.B. program broken out by race and gender. More than half of the 200 students who entered the I.B. program freshman year quit during their senior year, which is approximately the same as the rate for our “regular” classes. But the I.B. dropout rate for African-American students was nearly three times the rate of our white students. And, while Asian-American students tended to complete the program, they tended not to receive diplomas, which award college credit. Eleven of 35 males who began pre-I.B. were people of color. Thirty-seven females of color began the program that same year. But only 15 total students received I.B. diplomas by their senior year. Fourteen of these students were white and one was Latina. Foss was not colorblind.
Joey, a non-Fircrest student, appeared surprised when the last slide came up. “Wow,” he said. “I never knew this stuff was happening at our school.”
Looking at Sorting
Next we read the chapter “Sorting” in Ted and Nancy Sizer’s book The Students Are Watching. The chapter helps unearth a reality behind tracking: Students in the “high-ability” tracks are offered more rigorous course work and greater access to rich and creative schooling experiences than other students.
I wrote the phrase “Sorting Is . . .” in the center of about 10 feet of butcher paper, with enough space for plenty of comments, and taped it on the wall. I told the students that this activity is called a Chalk Talk. I explained that a Chalk Talk is a silent activity: No one may talk during it, yet anyone may add to the Chalk Talk as they please. I had used this activity before and knew that it provided opportunities for students who might be reluctant to make comments out loud. I found that the Chalk Talk also democratized discussion by allowing many voices to share simultaneously in a conversation. I didn’t set limits on how many students could “talk” at the same time, but I told them that there might be periods of long “silence” or times when we’d all be up at the front, “talking” and responding to each other’s comments. We were already familiar with the activity, so I handed different colored markers to my students and told them to write as they felt moved for 15 to 30 minutes. They were to use the article to apply their thinking about sorting to Foss.
Marissa, a student who lived near the apartments next to Highway 16, wrote on the paper first, “Sorting is systematic racism, and it’s a cheap way to determine the intelligence of us.” Her comment got three students out of their seats ready to respond.
“This happens because of powerful parents,” one wrote.
“This becomes like a group of kids that stay together through most of their high school courses,” wrote another. “It separates us from each other and puts us into categories.”
Jeremy, a quiet student, came up to write the following:
[Sorting is] extremely stupid and affects people’s lives in the long run, whether you realize it or not. When a young child is accustomed to sorting and grows up they will think that it is the proper way to live and grow up believing that the world should be sorted. It shouldn’t. A child that believes that sorting is right will have a very hard life ahead.
Some students also caught on to the larger implications of sorting. One student wrote, “[sorting is] a class system,”
“It is wealth segregated,” one replied.
When we debriefed, I asked how two of the comments in particular related to our study. I pointed to one student comment, “Oh well, what all can kids do?” Then I pointed out a student question, “So do we have to deal with it?” Jacob explained that we had a responsibility to do something about this stuff. Marissa added, “Yeah, if I had never studied tracking then I would never have known about it. We have to let others know.”
Marissa hit on an important point. The system of segregation at Foss was so embedded that the majority of students had no idea it was even going on. And more to the point, the institution had convinced students in most of the tracks in the school that they deserved their slots. Silence on the issues of tracking and segregation had been the norm until now. I wanted students to reflect, speak out, and take action.
Some students wanted to protest at the main office, carrying signs that labeled themselves as they had experienced in the testing and tracking role play. Students advocating this action believed it would forever expose the silent quality of tracking — the ways students from disadvantaged neighborhoods were slipped and slotted into lower tracks without their knowledge. My students believed this action might spread awareness to the student body and force the administration to open more classes in the I.B. track or make I.B. accessible to all students. With only 200 students enrolled in the program, there were serious inequities. Others wanted to march on over to the next school board meeting to demand that students be included in the academy work and have votes on major policy issues that involved our small school conversion. Still others wanted vaguely to “fight the power.”
After deliberating, we decided to host a “learn-in” on democracy and education. We decided to bring in professors from around the area and use students in the class to teach lessons. As a class we created a general list of topics that might explain tracking and our work on equity. Students chose topics on unpacking white privilege, looking at school through the eyes of students, raising the issue of Brown vs. Board of Education at our school, and looking closely at the social construction of intelligence.
Students wanted to build interest from their peers to analyze the I.B. program and its disproportionate benefits to white male students; to provide an alternative forum to the student government, which had some power in student activities but a nonexistent role in shaping our school; to include a student voice on schooling personalization and academy structure; to influence teachers to see students as active participants in the small schools work; and to critically examine the failure rate at Foss and gather support for a student-led organization that would hold our school accountable to all of its students.
Then we divided up the jobs. Marissa and Jacob asked the principal for permission and set the date for the event. Jesse helped create a concept letter to send out to community members and professors in the area to solicit their involvement. The students decided it was important to reach out to parents. Alicia and George made lists of all the teachers in the school and posted them in the room to provide us with a running tally of teacher and community involvement. A few students created lesson plans on equity, asking their peers to do a privilege walk, where students line up and step forward or backward depending on life experiences, to demonstrate inequity. Joey and Shar performed a rap they had written in class (see sidebar, page 40) and led classes in a Socratic Seminar using a text we read during our unit. Tausha read a letter she wrote to the Tacoma News Tribune and showed data on college tracks at Foss. Still other students arranged lunches for the presenters and helped brainstorm topics.
On the day of the learn-in students looked nervous in their dress-up clothes. Near the front of the cafeteria, before an anxious audience of professors, community members, and teachers, the opening act wasn’t quite working. The microphone wouldn’t turn on so that Joey and Shar could perform their rap. My palms were sweating. Julie, one of my students, looked up and said, “Don’t be so nervous, McFeat, it will be all right.”
Finally the microphone turned on, and the day quickly slid by. Students who weren’t presenting lessons were responsible for taking the presenters to their assigned classrooms, introducing them, taking notes on the lessons, and helping facilitate the lesson plans. During lunch, a student who had been co-teaching for three periods came in exhausted. I asked if she wanted lunch, “I’m starving,” she said, “I haven’t eaten anything all day.”
At the end of the day we had accomplished a lot. More than 18 professors, seven students, and four faculty members led discussions on equity that ranged from “The Education of Racism,” “Ebonics and the Skin We Speak,” and “The Deficit of Deficit Think-ing Widens the Gap” to some practical approaches to equity in “Reaching Toward Equity in College Readiness and Access” and “Student Profiles and Student Needs.” More than 23 classrooms had participated, and the demand was much higher than we could accommodate. More than half our student body, at least a thousand students, participated in at least one of the lessons. And 600 students had been to three or more sessions.
Reflecting on the experience Jessie said, “I never knew learning could be so real. This was learning and doing together. We can’t let this die down.” Immediately following the learn-in, some students talked of building a coalition or alternative group that would have an impact on school policies. A few students from some of the presentations got together and drew up plans for an interest group called S.T.A.T. (Students and Teachers Against Track-ing). Currently, one of the group members attends the small school faculty meetings to help us address student needs more effectively, and a larger number of students from that class presented on equity and education at the CES Northwest Symposium in Portland, Ore., and another CES workshop in Renton, Wash.
Perhaps the most tangible effect of our efforts came when our English courses in Academy 1 agreed to mix “honors” students with the “regular” ones for the next academic year. This has led to more inclusive classrooms this year, where students are mixed heterogeneously in at least one subject area, in one-fourth of the school. Before the unit on schooling, I never would have thought our academy would move in this direction, however slight it may seem.
Notes for Next Time
But the learn-in also had its problems. For example, Sam, an I.B. student, wasn’t so thrilled with the day’s events. “[The learn-in] didn’t explain sorting and tracking correctly. I believe we totally missed the point. All we see is the good and the bad. Nothing else.” Sam’s comment helped me to identify some holes in my teaching. I realized I had failed to enlist the support of I.B. students. And in some ways the unit set up an us-versus-them dichotomy. Although I had two separate tracks of students, and both classes were studying tracking, I only enlisted my “regular” kids for the learn-in, which may have added to this effect. Although my I.B. track of students didn’t seem as interested in doing something, I could have reached them more effectively by listening to them express feelings about the pressures they faced. I expected both tracks of students to be outraged for the same reasons, willing to change the school because it impacted them in the same ways. I could have been more nuanced in my teaching to allow for the I.B. students to challenge the inequity on their own terms and for their own reasons.
And there are other things I’d do differently. Although it was effective to have faculty from state universities teach lessons, student evaluations showed the student-run lessons had the highest ratings. I think I didn’t trust students to compel their peers to think differently about schooling. If I had to do it again, students would run every lesson during the learn-in.
During the debriefing with the professors, someone said he thought the learn-in failed to connect to what students would return to at school. Although he believed it was important to study school and these issues, he thought the learn-in built animosity without giving hope to students.
I also would have planned my lessons more closely with my colleagues. Together we could have highlighted ways in which changes have been made at other schools and provided concrete examples of successful school reform.
One teacher friend told me that she felt her teaching was being attacked, and that she wished we could have discussed what was going to happen during the learn-in before it occurred. I now realize it may have seemed arrogant to “teach” my colleagues about democracy and equity.
Despite these shortcomings, my students and I learned important lessons about civics and educational democracy. Students like Deshawn wanted to be included in the conversation about their future, about the future of small schools at Henry Foss. Without listening to their voices, we would have missed out.
*All students’ names have been changed.