Education Lab invited two parents and a principal give their responses to this question, and invites readers to the same.
Earlier this week we published a story about Seattle’s Leschi Elementary School, which has altered a popular Montessori program so that its classes are more racially balanced.
We asked three people who have been involved in conversations about school diversity to answer this question: Should Montessori and other special programs be altered or eliminated to increase racial balance?
Some parents at Leschi Elementary supported the move, while others strongly opposed it. We asked one Leschi parent who was quoted in our story, André Helmstetter, to explain why he didn’t think it was the right decision. The story also mentions another school, Washington Middle School, which is piloting a similar effort, combining students from “regular” and “advanced” tracks. We invited that principal, Susan Follmer, to share her perspective. Finally, we asked a Seattle Public Schools parent, LaKesha Kimbrough, who dealt with a similar issue at her daughter’s school years ago, to share her thoughts.
You can find their responses below. You also can offer your own answer in the comments section. We will add thoughtful reader responses to this post.
Washington Middle School Principal
After becoming principal at Washington Middle School last year, I began meeting my students’ parents. Some would proudly tell me their child was in the Advanced Placement Program (one of the district’s programs for highly capable students) and some would say, “My child is just in the general program.” As someone who cares deeply about issues of school culture, I concluded we had a problem.
When I arrived at Washington, our school sorted students into three programs: General, Spectrum (also a highly capable program) and Advanced Placement Program (now Highly Capable Cohort, or HCC). These “honors” categories were created by Seattle School Board policies and are administered by the Office of Advanced Learning. It is this office that determines students’ placement in HCC or Spectrum based on teacher recommendation and scores from standardized tests. The big qualifying test, the CogAT, must be taken in October or the prior year. At Washington this “honors” program status meant that these students were served in separate language arts and social-studies classes.
What I noticed was that the majority of kids of color were in the General program. The Spectrum and HCC classes had mostly white and Asian students. I wanted to understand what was going on, so I dug deeper into the achievement scores.
I discovered that many students in the General program were high achievers and some students in the Spectrum program were not achieving well when it came to the annual standardized test and class grades. It didn’t seem to be a very exact sorting and it certainly has had many unintended consequences on achievement and one’s developing sense of self.
Middle school is a vulnerable time in one’s life, and so much is changing as one tries to answer those big questions: “Who am I? What am I good at?” It is harder to answer these questions with a healthy sense of one’s self as a learner and a strong sense of self-efficacy if you notice over half of the other students are called “honor students.”
I fear that too many of our “general” students believe that they just aren’t very smart and that’s the way it is. Carol Dweck, in her book, “Mindset,” identifies this as fixed mindset and as a learning- and life-limiting belief. I did not want to continue to visit classrooms and find our general students doing worksheets and our honors students creating engaging projects and having stimulating discussions.
Together with my teachers, we decided to redesign the system by ensuring all students were taught using the engaging instructional techniques and high expectations that characterized HCC/Spectrum classes.
Last year, we abolished the name “General” and identified our three programs as APP, Spectrum and Scholars. There is a lot to a name.
This year we mixed our sixth grade Spectrum and Scholar students in their language-arts and social-studies classes. There are no longer separate classes but rather intentionally designed mixed classrooms, each of which has six to 10 Spectrum students and the opportunity for everyone to do that advanced level of work previously expected only of Spectrum students.
We call these new blended classrooms our 21st century classrooms as students do not sit in rows and there is a focused emphasis on the skills of collaboration, critical thinking and communication. The 250 students in those 20 classes work on rigorous and engaging tasks, taught by teachers who work closely together using technology daily and the most powerful and effective instructional techniques.
The preliminary results are encouraging. Now I visit those classrooms and I see high levels of student engagement and students demonstrating the habits of a learner such as focus, active participation and perseverance on learning tasks. In addition we see the benefits of students bringing their personal stories to the classroom and how sharing those stories creates an enhanced understanding one of another, and ultimately more celebration of diversity.
Separate Spectrum classes were effectively denying advanced learning opportunities to all students and now the door is open. We are building an inclusive learning community with advanced learning for all who choose to work hard.
Susan Follmer is serving her second year as principal of Washington Middle School, a school of 1,100 students in the Central Area of Seattle. Prior to coming to Washington, she was the principal at the International School of Monagas, in Venezuela. She has enjoyed varied roles in education as a high-school teacher, middle-school counselor, district administration, college instructor and Kent School Board member. It is the role of principal that she relishes the most of all.
Seattle Public Schools parent
All programming in all schools should manifest equity first, so that equality can be enjoyed.”
Before trying to answer this question, perhaps we should examine the factors that make this question necessary and sadly relevant today. What is it about our society that has allowed this to remain a question after so many years? To me it feels like this question is much bigger than our education system.
I was a senior at Garfield High School in 1992, around the time that catch phrases like “It’s a black thing, you wouldn’t understand“ were being printed on T-shirts. White students were seeking to understand and ally, and black students were seeking to explain and give voice to how we needed allies. And so students began to have hard conversations about why the school was divided in two: mostly white students were in the Advanced Placement program and mostly minority students were in the “traditional” program.
In 2005, when my daughter attended an elementary school in the Mount Baker area, the school’s faculty and parents from the community were attempting to prevent segregation of the school, which offered “traditional” and Spectrum programs. The school wanted to alleviate some of the racial and class division by having a blended Spectrum program. Students who did not qualify for the Spectrum program based on their test scores, but who were performing well in their classes, were assigned to the blended Spectrum class.
As a parent and as someone who was always at the school, I got the feeling, especially for my daughter and children in her class, that it provided the students who didn’t test into Spectrum the opportunity to feel acknowledged and validated. None of the children and none of the parents knew which children had tested into Spectrum or which children were there based on skill and ability and not just the ability to pass the test.
And, to me, it felt as if everyone considered these children “gifted.” (I use that term in quotes because I think all children are gifted.) Being in that blended Spectrum class allowed the children to shine and take ownership of their education. Giving all children access to those types of programs provides them with the opportunity to come into themselves. Having access to those types of programs for all children, despite any socially constructed barriers we create, provides children with an opportunity to come into themselves.
All programming in all schools should manifest equity first, so that equality can be enjoyed. When we’re talking about equity, we’re talking about impartiality and justness. And when we talk about equality, we’re talking about rights and opportunities. So if we have a just educational system that isn’t based solely on a child being able to pass a test, or parents being able to sign up for a particular program, then we’re on a more level playing ground. If offering different programs in a single school means segregating students, then the programs should be altered or changed so that all students are exposed to the same level and caliber of education.
I invite us all to take steps toward the day when we no longer have to ask this question. I invite us all to explore how gentrification often creates segregated schools, not just racially but also economically. I invite us to explore how newcomers to a neighborhood should seek to understand the history of the area which they now call home, and avoid seeking changes that harm their neighbors who have lived there longer. I invite all parents, community members and educators to check our privilege and ensure that we help all children reach high standards.
LaKesha Kimbrough is the parent of a Seattle Public Schools senior, enrolled at The Center School, participating in the Running Start program and taking classes at Seattle Central. LaKesha has worked with children, youth and families in a variety of capacities, including work as an education advocate, literacy enrichment specialist, and as a school volunteer. LaKesha is a preschool teacher, working with children ages 3 and 4, and tutors children in the area of reading. In addition to this work, she is very passionate about a number of social-justice issues.
Seattle Public Schools parent
Modifying or getting rid of programs that provide better educational and social outcomes, across economic, racial, and ethnic lines will not increase integration.”
First, I’d like to highlight the differences between Montessori and the district’s programs for highly capable students, Spectrum and the Highly Capable Cohort (HCC). Montessori is an educational model originally designed to support underprivileged children, whereas Spectrum and HCC are only open to advanced and highly capable students, which the district defines as “special needs students who require significant curricular modifications in order to achieve educational benefit.” That’s why I believe Spectrum/HCC programs are part of a different conversation, though they do have some similar issues.
The question of whether programs like Montessori should be modified or removed is a red herring. School programs are not the root cause of school segregation. Segregation in modern public schools is a complex product of history, neighborhood demographics, economic status, cultural beliefs around education, family choice, racial and cultural inequity, privilege, parent education and parents’ ability to advocate for their children. Modifying or getting rid of programs that provide better educational and social outcomes across economic, racial and ethnic lines will not increase integration.
Instead, I would argue that Seattle Public Schools could use programs such as Montessori to increase integration by doing the following things. First, what we should be doing is creating more access, not less, to programs such as Montessori that have proven to have positive outcomes across a wide demographic of children, including minority and poor kids in America. And we should deliver the programs as designed, with as little modification as possible because the programs are successful as designed for a reason. It’s best to keep them that way as much as possible, knowing that some things may have to be changed to meet whatever the local standards are for performance measurement and other policy and regulatory restrictions.
Second, stop having multiple programs with different educational offerings in one school. These create real and imaginary divides in schools and always leave someone feeling as though they are not getting the best the school has to offer. Instead, Seattle should create multiple, full Montessori (or similarly successful programs) across the city.
Finally, we should provide communities with comprehensive and culturally competent information through meaningful outreach to support parents in understanding why these programs are being offered and how having their children participate will be beneficial to their long-term success. Right now, many economically disadvantaged and minority families don’t trust that the district has their best interests in mind and don’t think programs like Montessori are for people like them. Engage the community. Build trust.
Utilizing programs like Montessori to create better educational outcomes across the board will ultimately support more integration. If more Montessori schools are available in areas where under-performing students are a higher percentage of the school area, the schools will perform better and be more attractive to more people. For the people in the school area, the schools will just be “school”, not a special program.
André Helmstetter is the parent of three children, two of whom have received the majority of their education in Seattle Public Schools. A resident of Seattle for more than 20 years, he has been active in parent groups opposing school closures, has run for a position on the Seattle School Board, and has volunteered in a number of school-support roles, including coaching the kindergarten chess team at Leschi Elementary.