Long troubled by the racial separation in many Seattle classrooms, teachers are leading an effort to dismantle the district’s history of de facto segregation.
Dismal school results have persisted so long for many black and Latino students that some observers believe the problem is virtually unchangeable, due to a mountain of social, economic and historical forces no teacher can reverse.
But a longtime educator in New York state says those theories are wrong, and her research is influencing teachers in Seattle. Specifically, at Garfield High School, where honors classes traditionally are filled with white and Asian students, while general-education classes are mostly black and Latino.
“We reached a point where we can no longer just say, ‘Oh, well.’ The racial segregating that has happened, that’s very uncomfortable for us,” said social-studies teacher Jerry Neufeld-Kaiser, explaining a new plan to combine ninth-graders of varied academic records into what the school is calling honors-for-all English and social-studies classes this fall.
The move, known as de-tracking, has startled many parents, who learned of it through a recent Seattle Times story on race and education. But teachers at Garfield had been discussing it all year, Neufeld-Kaiser said.
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Many were inspired by the work of Carol Burris, a principal at South Side High School in Rockville Centre, N.Y., who found that slower classes — and their reduced expectations — perpetuate low achievement.
In the late 1990s, Burris joined her district’s effort to de-track middle- and high-school courses, including math and science, and the number of African-Americans earning New York’s demanding Regents Diploma soared, from 32 to 82 percent in four years. (Rates for whites, Asians and Latinos increased, too.)
“Achievement follows from opportunities — opportunities that tracking denies,” Burris wrote in a 2005 article. “When all students were taught the high-track curriculum, achievement rose for all groups of students.”
A similar pattern appears to be emerging at Washington Middle School, in Seattle, which de-tracked much of its sixth grade last fall by blending general-education students with those labeled “Spectrum” — the district’s term for kids working one grade level above their age — in English and social studies.
The school’s most accelerated students, labeled its Highly Capable Cohort, remained in their own, separate classes.
The overall thrust aligns with a districtwide plan to eliminate all Spectrum-only classrooms in elementary schools, starting this fall. Eliminating gaps in academic opportunity is “the issue of our time,” Seattle School Superintendent Larry Nyland said during his State of the District address last November.
At Washington Middle, the experiment appears to be working. Principal Susan Follmer reported a 12-point increase in the percentage of sixth-graders passing state tests in Language Arts this spring, compared with the rate two years ago, before the combined-classroom approach.
“We consider it a great success, and long overdue,” she said.
De-tracking at Washington Middle will continue for most sixth-graders and expand to seventh grade for the new school year, Follmer added.
In practice, mixed-group lessons often look like this: Teachers assign an article and ask students to consider its meaning. But there are several versions of the same piece — one written for kids with advanced vocabularies, and another designed for students with lower skills. They all grapple with the same concepts, but learn through language tailored to their level.
Grouping fast-track and general students together was key to Washington Middle’s improved scores, Follmer believes.
“Role models are critical,” she said. “Take away role models and that’s the best way to have low expectations.”
Yet many families were skeptical at first.
Cassandra Johnston, whose children had tested into an advanced-learning program, confessed to initially being “afraid of the diversity” at Washington Middle but found that the experience was “absolutely incredible” for her daughters.
“A lot of parents react to what they fear — that their student isn’t going to get what they need, or want, or expect — but kids are amazingly capable of adapting. And every kid needs to be challenged, not just in the classroom but to grow as people, in the environment they find themselves in,” she said.
The change at Washington Middle echoes a recent move at Leschi Elementary to combine two racially segregated programs, and discussions are under way at Thurgood Marshall Elementary to do the same in social studies.
As at Garfield High, which promises extra instruction for students who enter ninth grade reading at a fifth- or sixth-grade level, the effort to dismantle a longstanding pattern of de-facto segregation was driven by teachers.
“It’s educators in the building, taking the lead,” said Phyllis Campano, president of the Seattle Education Association, the teachers union. “We can’t wait for the district to step up. Equity and what’s happening in our schools are our responsibility.”