Honors Class Leads to Diversity Debate

Diane Rado, Chicago Tribune, November 23, 2010

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One of the most racially mixed high schools in Illinois, Evanston has a mission of embracing diversity and promoting equity and excellence for all students. But its own data show that few minority students make it into the school’s most rigorous courses that will best prepare them for college and the future.

Honors classrooms dominated by white students have been common in Illinois and across the nation, a byproduct of a century-old and controversial tradition of tracking, or sorting, students into different levels of classes.

Across the Chicago region, high school officials say they are making inroads in diversifying their advanced classes, but Evanston is considering the boldest step of all: eliminating an elite honors English course that has traditionally been offered to the highest-achieving incoming freshmen–usually white.

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For the most part, freshmen of all races and socioeconomic and achievement backgrounds would learn together in the same freshman humanities class, an English course that blends literature, history, art, music and philosophy and is required for graduation. The class would be taught at the honors level, according to district officials, and all students would have the opportunity to earn honors credit depending on their grades on assignments.

The superachievers–freshmen who outscore about 95 percent of their peers nationally on eighth-grade achievement tests–would no longer have their own class, beginning next fall. A year later, the same approach would be taken with freshman biology classes, if the school board approves the proposal.

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“I’m excited about moving away from racially segregated classes,” he [Superintendent Eric Withersp] said at a packed school board meeting earlier this week, adding that all freshmen should be taking challenging courses that will propel them to even more rigorous classes as upperclassmen.

Applause broke out in some, but not all, parts of the mostly white audience.

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