The Challenge of Creating Schools That 'Work for Everybody'
One school's journey to address racial and income disparities
When the bell rings at Wheaton North High School, a river of white students flows into Advanced Placement classrooms. A trickle of brown and black students joins them. But mostly, the Latino, African-American, and Asian teenagers file into lower-rung classes.
In this way, Wheaton North is like thousands of other high schools across the country, replicating along its polished hallways the inequities that mark the daily lives of minority and low-income students beyond the school's big glass doors. Studies show, in fact, that achievement gaps within schools can be greater than those from school to school.
And, like many schools nationwide, Wheaton North is trying hard to rewire the machinery that perpetuates those inequities. It's making progress, but entrenched patterns persist.
"We're trying to make this school work for everybody," said Matt Biscan, who's in his third year as principal at Wheaton North. "What that means, exactly, we're figuring out as we go."
Educators and the public are aware that achievement gaps often separate students of color from their higher-achieving white peers and leave low-income students lagging behind their better-off peers. Less obvious are the mechanisms and circumstances that contribute to those academic differences—often within a single school.
This article is the first of a series intended to shed light on the “hidden inequities” that keep education from reaching the goal of leveling the playing field for all students.
Each installment is being produced by Education Week staff writers working in collaboration with the Education Week Research Center.
For this first installment, the research center mined national data to pinpoint high-achieving schools—Wheaton North High School ranks in the top 20 percent nationwide for its high participation rate in Advanced Placement classes—that also have race- and income-based disparities in who takes those classes.
Future installments will continue to draw on data analyses to examine:
- How parents and donors effectively—and sometimes unwittingly—tip the educational equity scales in public schools through private contributions and advocacy (April);
- District-to-district disparities in disciplinary practices used with special education students (May) and;
- School closings and high student-mobility rates, their impact on educational quality, and their disparate effects on different school communities (June).
One thing it means is a big push to open the doors of AP classrooms to everyone, not just the white, affluent students who disproportionately fill those chairs. That work is complex, slow-moving, and far from finished.
At tables in the sunny lunchtime commons, brown, black, and white students offer many stories of counselors and teachers who encourage them to try higher-level classes. But that sense of freedom and support isn't universal.
"They don't treat people the same," said an African-American girl who declined to give her name, even though she takes AP classes.
"They kind of size you up, like if they think you're going to a four-year college, they're like, 'AP's hard, but keep trying.' If they think you're maybe just going to community college, it's more like, 'Sure, if AP's too hard, don't do it.' "
Three white boys eating lunch nearby said their 8th grade teachers suggested that they try AP classes, but since they've been at Wheaton North, no one has mentioned it. Instead, they're taking classes that are mostly in the school's lowest tier of rigor.
Axel Muro had a different experience. The child of Mexican immigrants, the 16-year-old said he earned good grades in the least difficult tier of classes and decided to try an AP history class at his teacher's suggestion.
Even with a special school-provided summer course for support, though, it proved too tough, and Muro dropped out after one semester. "They expect you to do it all on your own, and it was, like, so much reading, I couldn't do it," he said. A half-dozen of his friends have done the same, he said.
Those kinds of stories make Biscan grind his teeth. As the principal, he's leading the push to change long-standing patterns that have sifted and sorted these 2,100 students' opportunities by race, income, and family background.
He's leading that drive in a predominantly white, affluent Chicago suburb known for its churches and civility, where immigrants from Burma, Mexico, and Iran are expanding the notion of community daily.
In a high school that's one of America's best, according to national magazines, but where students from the humble brick apartment buildings south of the railroad tracks often feel out of place in advanced classes. A school where the nearly all-white teaching staff politely sidesteps conversations about racial equity, even as they try to build an academic playing field where all students can win.
Beneath the Surface
The patterns here aren't easy to budge. Some are published, for all to see, in school report cards.
Black, Hispanic and low-income students score much lower on state tests here, as they do in schools nationwide. More than a quarter of Wheaton North students take AP classes—an accomplishment that puts the school in rarefied air nationally. But only 16 percent of those seats hold minority students, even though nonwhites make up 31 percent of the student body.
A fuller picture of students' lives and opportunities emerges from things that aren't on school report cards. Whether students are in regular or advanced classes. The grades they earn. The clubs they join and the sports they play. How likely they are to be suspended or apply to college.
At Wheaton North, there are three levels of classes: intermediate, or "I-levels," the default track, yet still considered college-prep; advanced, or "A-levels," and Advanced Placement. Low-income and minority students are overrepresented in I-level classes and underrepresented in AP classes.
Minority and low-income students are more likely to be suspended, and they're twice as likely to fail a class as their white peers. And even though more than 8 in 10 minority students here apply to college, they're far more likely to choose two-year colleges than their wealthier, white peers.
Wheaton North started work to change those patterns six years ago by dropping its lowest track of classes: remedial.
"If you walked into an R-level class, it was 75 to 80 percent minorities, kids from low socioeconomic backgrounds," said English teacher Nicole Blazier. "The high concentration of kids with weak skills just wasn't right for those kids."
Knowing those students would need extra support in a default college-prep curriculum, the school established a co-teaching system. A teacher of special education or English-learners joins a regular teacher in all core I-level courses that include students with disabilities, those learning English, and those with weaker skills.
On a recent afternoon, Blazier and special education teacher Ellen Murphy held a Socratic dialogue on The Great Gatsby with their 25 students. As in most I-level classes, this one had more than its share of minority students. Sitting in two concentric circles, the students debated the classic novel. The two teachers facilitated a lively discussion that involved everyone.
These co-taught classes have opened pathways for students. The A-level classes are swelling with teenagers who came from co-taught rooms.
"That's the idea," Biscan said. "To provide that support so they can move up. And we see that happening."
Raising Its Sights
A centerpiece of Wheaton North's work is its new AP Inspiring Excellence program. Last year, administrators gathered to analyze students' grades, PSAT scores, and attendance to identify those who might do well in AP. They sent the list to teachers and asked for feedback.
The form was deliberately designed to make it hard for teachers to say no. Their only response options are to recommend a student for AP, recommend a student on the condition that he or she takes a summer "bridge" class, or offer explanations.
Multiple teacher recommendations triggered a conference in the main office.
Eva Barg, a senior who's white, remembers the day she was called down to the office. She'd lurked below the radar for two years, trying not to draw attention in I-level classes.
But the vote of confidence she got in the meeting, where she learned of her teachers' recommendations, felt like a lightning bolt.
"It changed the way I thought about myself," Eva said. "I thought I wasn't as smart as everyone else."
She took the school's three-week summer bridge program to prepare students for AP and got an A in AP English her junior year. A huge smile spreads across her face as she tells this story. Now, she's taking two more AP classes.
Summer bridge is a key weapon as Wheaton North tries to shatter old class-taking patterns. For three weeks, three hours a day, students work on academic skills and study habits. Counselors hand-schedule those students into AP classes with the same teachers they had in summer bridge.
"They try to be sensitive to [students'] comfort level when they're trying it for the first time," said James Butikofer, who teaches AP psychology and its corresponding summer bridge course.
Wheaton North piloted a summer bridge class in English for five years before expanding the idea to seven courses in 2016.
The layers of support, however, can't always erase the feeling of otherness that can reduce students' inclination to sign up for advanced classes.
"I'm the only one in my AP class, and it's intimidating," said one black student. "My I-levels are more mixed, so I feel more comfortable in those classes."
Freedom to Choose
Even as racial inequity persists, Wheaton North has managed to foster an atmosphere of academic fluidity. It's easy to find students with white, brown, or black faces who'll tell you proudly that they moved from I-levels to A-levels or AP, or that their counselor keeps nagging them to do so. They also feel free to move down a rung if they wish.
Katlyn Jackson, an African-American sophomore, is taking I-level classes now but is thinking about moving up next year.
"I feel like you have a lot of choices here, and some you didn't know you had," she said. "If you feel you're in a place where this is the class I want to take, people at Wheaton North challenge you and can make that happen."
Warisha Aslam, who immigrated from Pakistan in 8th grade, chose mostly A-level courses in high school. The 12th grader has had to work hard to get good grades, but she said the jump into AP classes "was the best decision I ever made." Her teachers have been universally helpful and supportive when she hit rough patches.
Wheaton North defies some national patterns that perpetuate inequity. It doesn't concentrate its least-experienced teachers in classes with the neediest students. All teachers teach a range of lower-level and higher-level courses.
Its graduation requirements reflect the admissions requirements for Illinois state-university campuses. Diploma requirements that fall short of state-university expectations can become stumbling blocks, especially for students whose college aspirations take shape later than those of their peers.
But in other ways, the school echoes nationwide inequities.
Students can choose to spend their mornings at a nearby regional career-and-technical-education center. Its 20 programs of study offer hands-on learning that leads to jobs, industry certificates, or college.
Those programs provide earnings and postsecondary possibilities for young people who wouldn't otherwise have them. Eighty percent of the students at the regional center go on to college; nearly half of those attend four-year universities.
But racial- and income-based patterns here are impossible to miss. The bus that brings students to this sprawling complex from Wheaton North has a much bigger share of minority and low-income students on it than the campus they left behind. Some of the programs with lower earnings potential, such as early-childhood education, are nearly filled with minority girls, while those with higher income potential, such as engineering, are dominated by white male faces.
At the Wheaton North campus, teachers are reluctant to discuss race- and income-based patterns in school life, which can hinder the conversations necessary to uncover and solve the problems.
Asked about those patterns in I-level, A-level, and AP classes, most teachers chose to recast the question, saying they prefer to be colorblind, tailoring support to students based on their academic or emotional needs, not their race or class.
An outdated student-data system also hobbles the school's efforts to investigate and track key indicators of trouble or progress.
Teachers don't have easy access to disaggregated data on coursetaking, college applications, and other dynamics that are influenced by race and income. Administrators had to funnel enormous effort into assembling the data in response to a reporter's request.
It's just one more source of frustration for Biscan as his team works to identify and address inequities in their school.
And yet, it was an analysis of student data several years ago that launched Wheaton North on its path to move overlooked students into challenging classes.
One of the most elusive and difficult challenges in that work lies with students themselves, the educators here say. Some can't take on tougher classes because they have to work or help out at home.
But others decline because they don't have time in schedules crammed with sports or activities, they have too many hard classes already, or aren't confident they can handle tougher courses, said Robert Longenbaugh, who directs the school's seven-member team of counselors.
Marc Anderson hears something more in that "confidence" reason. As a black man, and a Wheaton North social worker attuned to the stories of students of color, Anderson hears doubts and fears begging to be chased away by adults with high expectations.
"There's a mindset that you're not good enough, or smart enough, that takes shape in elementary school and persists through high school, and kids buy into it," Anderson said. "We're the ones that have to help them see things differently."
That journey is far from over, and educators at Wheaton North aren't exactly sure how they'll know when they can mark their arrival. Is it when their AP classes precisely replicate their student demographics? Or something short of that?
"Saying that all kids need to get to the same place by the time they leave, that isn't the right idea," said science teacher Rachelle Terada. "They should be better when they leave, better than they thought they could be. Is that the same for every kid? I don't know."
Math teacher Anne Gentzler sees it this way: "It's that age-old debate: Where does each kid end up, and is that enough?"
Biscan, for his part, is still wrestling with that question. He knows that many families aren't yearning for their students to conquer AP and attend a university. His community has many, varied goals for its children. And he knows that for now, that has to mean more open doors.
Vol. 36, Issue 25, Pages 1, 12-14Published in Print: March 22, 2017, as The Hard Work of Making School 'For Everybody'