Posted on November 28, 2023

To Shrink Learning Gap, This District Offers Classes Separated by Race

Sara Randazzo and Douglas Belkin, Wall Street Journal, November 26, 2023

School leaders in this college town just north of Chicago have been battling a sizable academic achievement gapbetween Black, Latino and white students for decades. So a few years ago, the school district decided to try something new at the high school: classrooms voluntarily separated by race.

Nearly 200 Black and Latino students at Evanston Township High School signed up this year for math classes and a writing seminar intended for students of the same race, taught by a teacher of color. These optional so-called affinity classes are designed to address the achievement gap by making students feel more comfortable in class, district leaders have said, particularly in Advanced Placement courses that historically have enrolled few Black and Latino students.

“Our Black students are, for lack of a better word…at the bottom, consistently still. And they are being outperformed consistently,” Monique Parsons, Evanston school board vice president, said at a November board meeting. “It’s not good.”


School districts in Minneapolis, Seattle, San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., offer optional, race-specific elective courses. Federal antidiscrimination laws prevent public schools from mandatorily separating students by race, but education lawyers say optional courses can comply with the law.

“A lot of times within our education system, Black students are expected to conform to a white standard,” said Dena Luna, who leads Black student-achievement initiatives in Minneapolis Public Schools. The district offers middle- and high-school students electives focused on African-American history and social-emotional support, taught by teachers of color. Created in 2015 for Black boys, the format has expanded to Black girls and will soon expand to Latino students. An internal study showed improved attendance for Black boys in the program in 2017 and average GPAs of 2.27, compared with 2.14 for Black males districtwide.

“In our spaces, you don’t have to shed one ounce of yourself because everything about our space is rooted in Blackness,” Luna said.


A 2019 study on the original program for Black boys offered by the Oakland Unified School District found that students who took the affinity class were slightly less likely to drop out of school. The district also offers elective and advisory classes designated for Latino, Asian Pacific Islander and Arab students {snip}

Evanston is taking the strategy one step further, offering courses for Black and Latino students in core math classes: algebra 2, precalculus and AP calculus, as well as an English seminar. Evanston’s classes for Black students are known as AXLE, an acronym for Advancing Excellence, Lifting Everyone, and those for Latino students are called GANAS, from a Spanish expression that means “giving it all you’ve got.”


Equity guides many of the district’s decisions, embodied in a stated board goal: “Recognizing that racism is the most devastating factor contributing to the diminished achievement of students, ETHS will strive to eliminate the predictability of academic achievement based upon race.”


Student testimonials included in a presentation Evanston teachers gave at a conference last fall described how students feel more accepted in the classes.

“I feel like I represent me and not the whole black race in this AP class,” said a student who took an AXLE class in 2021. “It’s a safe space. In AP classes that are mostly white, I feel like if I answer wrong, I am representing all black kids. I stay quiet in those classes.”


In the 2021-22 school year, the most recent available, 80% of white AP test takers earned a score of 3 or higher, often the benchmark needed to get college credit, compared with 61% of Latino test takers and 48% of Black test takers.