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The Value of Aiming High -- Together

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Alannie Grant

Alannie Grant, a senior at Rockville Centre's South Side High School, took the International Baccalaureate and will attend New York Univeristy.

Kurt Joseph

Student Kurt Joseph in physics class at South Side High School.

Integrated schools set higher expectations and achieve better results for those typically left behind 

Alannie Grant never thought she’d be headed to New York University for college. “It will be very different going to that kind of school,” says the 18-year-old high school senior, who is African American and from a low-income family.

Grant says she owes her success to the International Baccalaureate (IB), a two-year college-credit program similar to Advanced Placement (AP). “With the IB, you write essays and have all this opportunity to find something different about yourself,” she says.

Other high schools offer the IB, but at Grant’s school—South Side High, in Rockville Centre on Long Island—70 percent of the students take IB English or Math. Nearly 40 percent of the school’s black and Hispanic students are IB diploma candidates. Fifteen years ago, virtually no students of color at South Side were taking IB or AP courses.

The secret? Where most big, suburban high schools put students in “tracks”—groupings for high-, middle- and low-level achievers, in which students in the top categories typically are college-bound and those in the lower ones are not—South Side is track-free, with nearly everyone taking enriched or advanced courses. The school averages fewer than five dropouts per year. Every student takes accelerated math and nearly all take calculus. Black and Latino students in Rockville Centre have higher rates of earning the New York State regents diploma than do white students statewide.

“De-tracking has done wonders for this school,” says Principal Carol Burris, a Teachers College alumna who has become a nationally recognized expert on the subject. “It’s not just a way to group kids—it’s a strategy for whole-school reform.”

Mixing It Up

South Side’s experience dramatically illustrates an old but seemingly forgotten lesson: “separate” is rarely “equal.” The U.S. student population is growing more diverse—as of 2005, 42 percent of public school students were members of a racial or ethnic minority group, up from 22 percent in 1975—but American schools are becoming more segregated, both by race and social class. About one-sixth of black students and one-ninth of Latino students now attend “apartheid schools” (institutions with at least 99 percent students of color). In urban centers, black and Latino students are twice as likely to attend such schools. Forty percent of African Americans now live in the suburbs—but they remain segregated, in housing and in schools, across all income levels.

The result is much what it was more than half a century ago.

“Within our racially divided society, students of color who are not in close proximity to more affluent and politically powerful white students in school are far more likely to get the short end of the educational stick,” write Amy Stuart Wells, TC Professor of Sociology and Education, and her students, Terrenda White, Annis Brown, Jacquelyn Duran, Mei Lue and Lisa Gordon in their Equity Matters research review, “The Harms of Racial and Socio-Economic Segregation: What We Know About Why School Desegregation Does and Does Not Matter in the 21st Century.”

Apartheid schools are characterized by:

  • Highly concentrated poverty. Seventy-one percent of all black public school students and 73 percent of all Latino public school students attend schools where more than half of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch or come from families with income less than 185 percent of the poverty line. Just 28 percent of white students attend such schools.
     
  • A lack of quality teachers. Schools serving poor students and students of color attract and retain fewer teachers who are well educated, certified, experienced and credentialed in their subjects. In 2000, 28 percent of teachers in New York City’s highest-poverty schools had two years or less of classroom experience, compared with 15 percent of teachers in the lowest-poverty schools. In 2006, a legal brief filed by former Chancellors of University of California campuses asserted that the odds of a new California public school teacher being appropriately credentialed varied inversely with the proportion of blacks/Latinos in a school—even when salaries were high and students were high achievers and not from low-income families.
     
  • Inferior curricula. High school students who take more challenging courses enjoy greater success, academically and on the job market, report TC faculty members Margaret Crocco and Anand Marri and their students Christopher Zublionis and Samantha Schoeller in their Equity Matters research review, “Rigorous and Challenging Curricula for All Students: The Equity Perspective.”

Yet poor and minority students are far less likely to take such courses. In part that’s because many attend racially isolated schools, but it’s also because, even in integrated schools, “second generation” segregation often persists, particularly in the form of tracking. Studies show that since the practice was introduced in the post-Sputnik era, poorer students—particularly those who are black, Hispanic, Native American or English language learners—have since been shunted into lower tracks at a disproportionately high rate.

NCLB, too, has created barriers to curricular equity. In striving to reach the NCLB-mandated goal of proficiency for all students in reading and math by 2014, districts and schools have dramatically scaled back physical education, the arts, social studies, lunch, recess and other activities. A 2007 study by the Center for Education Policy found that, in elementary schools surveyed, time spent on subjects other than reading and math had dropped by nearly one-third since 2002, the year NCLB went into effect. Schools that serve poor and minority kids were significantly more likely to make such cuts.

Meanwhile, only 16 percent of the nation’s poorest students took an advanced placement or International Baccalaureate-level course in 2004, compared with 51 percent of the wealthiest students.

  • Poorer academic performance, lower graduation rates and lower college attendance rates. The majority of high schools that are 90 percent non-white have low “promoting power” (less than 60 percent of their students graduate in four years), versus just 6 percent of majority-white high schools. Students in predominantly minority schools also are less likely to graduate from college, even if their test scores and socioeconomic status are high. And whether or not they come from poverty, students in high-minority districts usually have high school graduation rates below 50 percent.

Yet despite all the evidence of the benefits of integrating schools and classrooms—and of the harms of not integrating them—in June 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down plans in Seattle and Louisville that specifically sought to maintain racial balance in classrooms. Prior to that decision, federal courts were rapidly terminating their oversight of desegregation decisions. The result, the Wells group finds, has been the rapid re-segregation of districts such Charlotte-Mecklenberg in South Carolina, once among the nation’s most integrated.

Against The Odds

All of which makes the success of South Side High even more impressive. When the school opened in 1982, race relations in Rockville Centre were so bad that then-principal Robin Calitri (Carol Burris’s predecessor) brought in consultants to help ease the tensions. Calitri himself astutely observed that racial conflict among students was most severe in the lowest-track classes, and he began phasing those classes out.

By 2000, the year Burris became principal, South Side—through the efforts of district Superintendent William Johnson, another TC alum and current adjunct professor—had eliminated its elementary school Gifted and Talented program in favor of inclusive classes and completely de-tracked its middle school, ensuring that students begin high school prepared for accelerated classes. Tracking in grades 9 and 10 had been eliminated, too.

Making those changes wasn’t expensive, nor did it involve hiring many new teachers—but it did require a wholesale cultural shift.

“You can’t just snap your fingers and do away with tracks,” says Burris, who will publish a book later this year, De-tracking for Excellence and Equity, which she wrote with Delia T. Garrity. “You have to carefully screen the teachers you hire to make sure they’ve got the skills needed to help kids rise to a new challenge. You’ve got to offer support classes for struggling learners, and professional development for your faculty. And it’s a political process, too. You get resistance from teachers of high-track classes, parents of gifted students and parents of special needs students. So you have to collect data on your results, analyze it and communicate it back to all your stake-holders.”

What money the district did spend, Johnson adds, was mostly on support classes for struggling students. The classes “ended up being so well subscribed to that they just knocked us out of our socks.”

Clearly the effort has paid off. Meeting a group of visiting researchers this past spring, one young South Side student was asked what she thought it would take to create another school along the same lines.

“Hire teachers who believe in the kids,” she said. previous page