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A ‘tremendous’ divide: tracking exacerbates opportunity gap at ETHS

January 28, 2022

Stepping into the halls of Evanston Township High School circa 1992, one would find themselves briefly submerged in the high school’s forever-favorite advertisement: a “melting pot” of students, oozing at the brim with ethnic and racial diversity. 

With a population made up of 46 percent white students, 44 percent Black students, six percent Hispanic students and four percent Asian students, one may claim this boast was justified. Besides the term’s tokenization and implications of assimilation, a peek within classroom doors quickly removed a spectator’s rose-tinted glasses. 

At the time, ETHS classes were generally split into three levels in order of rigor: Level 1, Regular and Honors. Data about the racial makeup reveals a pattern. Regular algebra, for example, had a total enrollment of 98 Black students and 17 white students. Its honors level counterpart, on the other hand, included 12 Black students and 148 white students. English and U.S. history exhibited the same trend: Level 1 English had a 30:1 ratio of Black and white students, while honors had a 37:148 ratio. Level 1 U.S. history had a 61:3 ratio while honors had a 28:88 ratio.

Pam Cytrynbaum, class of ‘84, recalls a similar divide.

“It was tremendously segregated.”

One prominent reason behind this blatant segregation? Tracking.

Tracking refers to a system that separates students into classes of various rigors based on their perceived ability. Its origins in the United States can be traced back to the early 1900s as a response to the influx of immigrants. Elitist scholars claimed that many immigrant children’s only future lay in factory work, and, therefore, advanced classes should be created for those with a college-bound future. There were obvious xenophobic and racist undertones to these decisions, with the impact hitting close to home.

It was tremendously segregated.”

— Pam Cytrynbaum

The late 1930s show ETHS’ first signs of tracking. Marie Claire Davis’ History of Evanston Township High School: First Seventy-Five Years, 1883-1958 illustrates how the system began.

“The faculty agreed that, whatever title they be given, these groups of students would exist—those intent on entering Eastern colleges; those concerned with general colleges, such as the state university; those in the practical arts; those in business; and ‘those who know not whence they go,’” Davis wrote.

The Great Depression is noted as one of the causes of this shifted mindset. It is also interesting to note that Evanston’s population nearly doubled between 1920 (37,234) and 1940 (65,389) according to the U.S. Census. Many students showed excitement over the new array of classes: nursing, hygiene and woodworking to name a few. While the change was welcomed, it set the unexpected foundation for a preemptively racist system.

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