Special Report
Families & the Community

Black Parents Force District to End Academic Tracking

Fed up with district’s unmet pledges to stop steering African American students into low-level classes, parents take action
By Denisa R. Superville — March 03, 2020 11 min read
Tina Lawson, a lawyer whose children attended schools in the Upper Dublin school district in suburban Philadelphia, helped organize a group of black parents to pursue legal action against the district for steering black students into low-level courses and applying uneven discipline rates for students of color.
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For years, black parents in the Upper Dublin school district in suburban Philadelphia complained that their children were steered into less-rigorous classes and faced harsher discipline than their white peers for similar offenses.

The parents repeatedly met with district administrators and got assurances that the district would take steps to end tracking. But nothing significantly changed.

The final straw came on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in 2015, when district officials told members of the group, Concerned African American Parents, or CAAP, that they would not proceed with a plan to remove the lowest-level academic courses that year because teachers wouldn’t be on board and the district needed more time to make it work, said Tina Lawson, a lawyer who is the group’s president.

“Parents were crying. They were in tears. People were upset,” Lawson said.

"[M]y first instinct was, ‘OK, well, let’s just sue them. They can’t get away with this. What they’re doing is illegal, and we’re not going to go for it.’”

Just two years prior, Lawson, whose three children attended private schools before she enrolled them in Upper Dublin in 2012, had no idea what tracking was. But the practice was the lived reality for decades for many black parents in a district where African Americans make up about 7 percent of the 4,000-student enrollment, she said.

Generations of Tracking

Some of the children of the families who had been pushing to eliminate tracking were already in their 30s and had found that the less academically-rigorous classes they took in Upper Dublin had not prepared them for college. Once they got funneled into those classes—as early as middle school—they were unlikely to ever get out and participate in Advanced Placement or honors classes, Lawson said.

"[C]oming from a private school [background] where everyone pays and basically everyone gets the same education, I just found it so hard to believe,” Lawson said. “That was my naive perspective, thinking, ‘Oh, everyone is getting the same thing here.’”

The parents filed complaints, first with the state Human Relations Commission and later with the federal education department in 2015, alleging a long-standing pattern of discrimination that steered African American students into low-level classes. Black students, they alleged, were underrepresented in upper-track courses and were less likely to be identified for gifted education classes.

They also argued that overly-harsh disciplinary practices led to African American students being suspended at higher rates than their white peers who committed similar offenses. The pattern was the same when it came to involving law enforcement. When white and black students committed similar offenses, police were called more often when they involved African American students. Those calls were often left to the discretion of school personnel.

For example, in the 2014-15 school year, black students comprised 8.5 percent of the enrollment of Upper Dublin High School, but made up 45 percent of the out-of-school suspensions, according to the complaint.

R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, an associate professor in the sociology of education program at New York University, said predominantly white suburban school systems with small numbers of students of color often have the largest disparities in suspensions.

Families of color, especially if they may live in apartment buildings, are often not seen as full members of the communities. And when they seek redress from the school systems, “rather than being fought for, they are fought with, and their issues are sidelined or eschewed.”

“If we are serious about doing the work about reducing disparity, the first step in the process is listening to those who are more likely to be impacted,” said Lewis-McCoy, whose research explores the experiences of black families in suburban school systems. “So a district that’s high performing, a district that by many measures is diverse, can still have a racial problem, can still have a class problem, and until people are forced to look at that, they often avoid it.”

Menu of Correction Actions

Nearly four years after the parents filed the federal complaint, the two sides reached an agreement through mediation. Under the settlement, the district will reduce the number of tracks in math classes from three to two in 6th grade, beginning in the current school year, and do the same in 7th and 8th grades over the next two years. It must also develop a math course for 8th grade students who are not ready to take Algebra 1.

By the 2022-23 school year, the district should have no other tracks besides “academic” and “honors” at the high school, and student enrollment in AP and honors courses should not depend on whether the student previously took AP or honors classes. The district must drop a form known as “against educational advice,” which parents had to sign if they disagreed with a counselor or teacher’s recommendation for their child’s placement in a class.

Parents saw this as an additional hurdle that often required them to visit the school, and was a sign that district officials did not trust their judgment of their children’s academic abilities, Lawson said.

The district also had to update its policies for when police can be called to schools. Before the new policy was adopted last year, police were often called at the discretion of school personnel. Now only the principal can do that, and the document lists cases in which police must be called, like weapons possession and assault, and cases where principals have some discretion in calling the police. All staff must undergo implicit-bias training, while administrative and instructional staff at the high school have to undergo training in restorative disciplinary practices.

The Upper Dublin settlement could be a model for parents in other districts who are in a similar situation, said Benjamin Geffen, a staff attorney at the Public Interest Law Center, a Philadelphia-based public interest firm that represented the Upper Dublin parents.

“Obviously every district has a different factual situation, but nonetheless, I am hopeful that other families in similar districts around the country can use this settlement agreement as a starting point for solving related problems that they may see in their own districts,” Geffen said.

New Leadership Brings Optimism

One reason the Upper Dublin district and parents reached an accord was the arrival in 2018 of Superintendent Steven Yanni, who came from a nearby district and had been following the case.

He believes tracking is bad and inequitable. In his previous districts, Yanni said he had an equity focus that included many of the remedies the Upper Dublin parents were seeking, such as reducing out-of-school suspensions and holding anti-bias training for the staff.

“I truly believe that we can only move kids as far as we are willing to increase our expectations, and in low-level classes, I just don’t believe—I’ve never believed—that kids have access to high teacher expectations and also access to rigorous coursework,” he said.

Even before the agreement was hammered out, Yanni told the African American parents he planned to remove the lowest-level math class in 6th grade.

Some of his efforts go beyond what the agreement requires. He set up a math pilot program to help all students reach a level of proficiency, and the leadership staff is working with teachers to unpack standards so they know what students need to know and be able to do at every grade level. He’s also committed to increasing diversity of the staff—a difficult task in a state struggling to bring new people, including people of color, into the profession. Currently, the district leadership team is nearly 12 percent African American, but the teaching and professional staff is only about 3.5 percent black, he said.

Yanni can’t explain why previous administrations were so slow to respond to parents’ concerns. But he thinks the delay made it harder for the district to eventually do so.

“I truly believe that our teachers want this, that our teachers want the de-tracking to happen,” Yanni said. “We want to have high expectations for kids. They just need some support to help them make those changes and that’s what we’re doing now.”

Yanni’s commitment to making changes and his openness to meeting and keeping them apprised of progress have made the CAAP parents optimistic. He has created an equity committee to address concerns of not just African American students, but also Hispanic students, Asian students, students whose first language is not English, and students from low-income families.

While they are “somewhat” satisfied with the resolution, Lawson said parents had to leave some concerns on the table while they were hammering out the agreement last summer.

Still, Lawson thinks that because the parents now have a working relationship with the superintendent, whom she called “proactive,” they can explore those issues without having to go to court.

A lingering concern is the superintendent’s responsibility to balance the needs of all students in the district along with those who’ve not received the attention they deserved, Lawson said.

“We get as a superintendent you have to make sure all children are treated equally and that all children receive the same education,” she said, “but we have a particular interest in this small group of children who haven’t been treated well by the district all of these years.”

While the agreement requires the district’s school board to adopt official policies enshrining the steps into district practices, in order to make it harder for a future school board or superintendent to disregard them, it’s largely up to the parents to monitor the agreement and ensure that it sticks, Geffen said.

“It’s really important for parent groups like this to be constantly on the lookout for families with younger children who are willing to get engaged with the group’s work so the group doesn’t just age out of the school district just as it is nearing success,” Geffen said.

There is concern that a new superintendent and board could upend it all—though they would have to do so after public hearings and bypassing new policies.

Lewis-McCoy, who wrote “Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling,” said it will all come down to implementation, particularly in ensuring that black students are not suspended at disproportionate rates. That requires everyone in the system to radically rethink how they engage with students, he said. Parents will also have to watch for whether the district is switching from out-of-school suspensions to in-school suspensions.

“If that is the case, you’re still going to have a disparity in schooling experience,” he said.

A key is ensuring the process is not top-down. If those charged with putting changes into effect are not on board, they could derail them. And there could be intense pressure from parents with means, he said. They can view detracking and expanding access to honors and AP as a zero-sum game or dumbing down of content that reduces their childrens’ chances of getting into elite colleges, and that, he said, could lead them to threaten to leave the district.

That could push the superintendent or school board to pass policies that may appear equitable but serve to further the interests of those with the loudest voices.

“Implementation is going to be where this plan lives or dies, and then what needs to be done if implementation is actually not working out,” he said.

Staying the Course

That’s something Yanni is working hard to avoid, he said.

He said he has hired a new leadership team committed to equitable outcomes for students.

The district is rolling out training in small groups for all staff to help them understand their biases and adopt practices that would mitigate their impacts, reviewing curricula to ensure that materials reflect the students sitting in the classrooms, and using non-verbal screenings to ensure students who are not proficient in English have an equal shot of getting into gifted and talented classes.

The district is relying heavily on data to track performance to see where gaps exist, where students are doing well and where they aren’t. It’s using nationally-normed tests to compare student performance in Upper Dublin with peers across the country to give officials a broader picture of how their students are doing.

“There has been so much talk and energy around it that the ability to not be on the same page, particularly right now, isn’t really even an option,” Yanni said. “But we will be continuing to monitor it because as we move on, I don’t want the district to slide backwards.”

But he also said trust is essential to making this work, and that will take time, given the black parents’ experiences with previous administrations.

It’s too early to tell what’s going to happen in Upper Dublin. District data show that African American students make up fewer than 4 percent of students enrolled in upper-level math courses at the high school this year, and about 3 percent of those taking upper-level science classes.

Yanni said he expects those numbers to improve as the district increases access to those courses.

He’s determined that the steps outlined in the agreement and other work he’s leading will bring lasting change.

“One of the things that I felt really passionate about is to not just do this and check the box that we did this, but to make sure that we constantly evolve and constantly grow, and don’t slide back into any patterns that may have existed in the past.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 2020 edition of Education Week as Black Parents Force the End of Academic Tracking


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