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Amidst controversy, tracked classes remain

January 28, 2022

Despite Alson’s best efforts, racism via tracking continued to prevail.

Lower expectations of academic success materialized through the same courses offered in varying degrees of rigor and “intelligence.”  Eighth grade students would spend a Saturday in December completing the standardized EXPLORE test, which determined their freshman year class level. 

“You might be put in honors, you might be put in mixed honors, you might be put in regular or you might be put in enriched—and enriched actually meant the lowest level,” Eric Witherspoon, current ETHS Superintendent, explains.

The EXPLORE test was a dated, long-standing tradition.

“I talked to a woman just recently—in fact, she was in the class of ‘64—and she remembers going and taking the EXPLORE test when she was in the eighth grade,” Witherspoon shares.

Current Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Dr. Pete Bavis summarized in a 2015 report, Detracked – and Going Strong, the way this system functioned before and during Alson’s superintendence. 

“The designation of ‘honors’ didn’t even take into consideration how students actually performed in class,” Bavis wrote. “This approach resulted in a structural barrier to mobility, which all but excluded students in regular tracks from accessing the most rigorous curriculum throughout their high school careers.”

Once students were placed in a track their freshman year, it was nearly impossible to transition to a new one. 

It is crucial to note the factors that affected, and continue to affect, students’ performance in the classroom and on standardized tests. Burns expands on some of the cultural and societal influences. 

“In my experience, a lot of white, wealthier classmates had access to tutoring and other enrichment opportunities outside of the classroom. And it wasn’t difficult for them [to access them]. It was routine; it was automatic.” 

This pattern is observed all across the country. Due to housing discrimination, limited access to education and jobs for older generations, generational trauma and countless additional factors created by a white supremacist system, many Black families, Indigenous families, and families of colors are trapped in difficult financial and cultural situations.

Image courtesy of the Key archives.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median income of white (not Hispanic) households in 2019 was $77,007. This is followed by $56,814 for Hispanic (any race) households and $46,005 for Black households. Less money equates to lower access to expensive, external resources that help improve academic performance.

“And so the question is: [what happens to] people who don’t have [access to outside resources], and they have a teacher that doesn’t really expect much out of them?” Burns continues. “They may come from a single-parent household, a working class household where they don’t have a ton of time to help their child with their education, and then don’t have the same access to tutoring. How do we level the playing field?” 

Alson clarifies that eighth-grade teacher recommendations initially played a role in placement, the goal being to humanize students beyond their ability to test-take. However, he admits they were forced to eliminate these recommendations due to teachers’ racial biases. 

And so the question is: [what happens to] people who don’t have [access to outside resources], and they have a teacher that doesn’t really expect much out of them?

— Bobby Burns, Fifth Ward alderman

Another important factor that Burns highlights is how white families are more likely to know loopholes within the system that can, sometimes unfairly, boost their child’s access to “success.” 

“[For some white families], even if their student isn’t excelling enough to justify their placement in an advanced classroom,” Burns says, “they’ll call the district and make sure that their student is in that class. And that’s something that happens behind the scenes that a lot of people may not know. That makes a big difference.”

Due to the aforementioned reasons, the courses students were placed in seemed to lose melanin the higher the level they were. 

In an article for the Chicago Tribune, Nicole Summers, class of ‘04, illustrated the visceral visual difference. 

“You can look in a room and know if it is an honors or regular class by the color of the students’ skin.”

Burns, also ‘04, describes the blatant difference in experiences based on which level someone was in. 

“Some students are in classrooms where there’s a higher expectation, and there’s an accelerated curriculum, and there’s these higher rates,” Burns explains. “There’s a push for them to excel in their studies. Then, in other classes, there isn’t that same expectation.”

Marcus Campbell, current principal and assistant superintendent, as well as former ETHS English teacher from 2001-2011, shares his experience as a teacher dealing with expectations for lower course levels. 

“I remember teaching the Odyssey in freshman humanities,” Campbell starts. He explains an interaction with a fellow teacher who urged him to assign an easier version of the book to his two-level (also known as the “regular” level, below the honors level) students. “It was this big orange book, like a bedtime story. And I was [thinking], ‘there’s no way I want to give my kids this book.’ I had a great relationship with my kids. I had expectations for my students. I knew that if I gave them something like that, it would be offensive to them,” Campbell continues. “First of all, I was like, ‘What? They can do this. It’s my responsibility to get them through this.’ I’m not going to say they can’t do it, because they can.”

Mariana Romano, who has taught English at ETHS since 2002, shared her observed impact of poor expectations for students in lower-level classrooms at a board meeting in 2010.

Romano, who also taught “sophomore two-levels” at the time, described a troubling experience. 

“At one point during the Jane Eyre unit, one of my sophomores asked me, ‘Why are you making us read this? Don’t you know we’re the dumb kids?’ I was ill equipped to address the damage to those kids.”  Romano continued to express that “These students suffered, and still do, with the idea that they are inferior learners, and that stereotype threat guides their behavior and performance.”

As more teachers began to support the elimination of the tracking system that caused their students to lack confidence, Witherspoon, as newly-appointed superintendent, also grappled with the seemingly hidden, deeply-rooted reality of racial inequity at ETHS.

“I started in July 2006. I’m getting [ready] to go to school. Come the end of August, [the] staff comes back, [the] students come back; I’m so excited. Like I am today, I’m in the hallways a lot. I’m seeing the rich racial diversity of the school, as well as cultural diversity—how different kids dress and [different] languages [are] spoken. I just love it,” Witherspoon describes. 

“But almost immediately, I observed something I didn’t know about Evanston when I accepted the job, and that was that, when you got in the school, how racially segregated the classes were.”

The superintendent notes ETHS’ demographic diversity was an attraction that initially drew him to the school. However, Witherspoon recalls a sense of shock towards the evident segregation he saw daily within the school.

“I could remember that, [during] passing period, as it’s time for class to start and getting close to the time for the bell to ring, you could literally sit in the hall and watch a lot of racial segregation. There were rooms where almost only students of color were going in, and there were rooms where almost only white kids were going in. I really thought those days were over.”

Witherspoon recalls a heart-wrenching wake-up call that shifted the trajectory of his time at ETHS and echoes the reality that teachers already knew.

There were rooms where almost only students of color were going in, and there were rooms where almost only white kids were going in. I really thought those days were over.

— Dr. Eric Witherspoon, ETHS superintendent

“I’ll never forget, one day, I went [into a classroom],” he starts. “I slipped into a desk, and there was just a really nice young man, one of our Black males, sitting at the desk next to me.” With a tight throat, Witherspoon continues. “He leaned over and he said to me, ‘This is the dummy class.’ My heart sank.” 

Witherspoon notes that he counted “15 kids in the room, 14 of them were Black males and one was a Black female. I thought to myself, right then, ‘This is wrong.’”

That interaction caused Witherspoon to critically rethink the system that had racially separated students in the first place. 

“First of all, [it’s wrong that] in the eighth grade, we determined you belong in a ‘dummy’ class. It’s also wrong that you’re going to class where you’re not going to get the same education as the other kids in the ninth grade or the 10th grade because they’re going to get a better course, and it’s wrong that you’re going to be held down so that you can never take what we often say might be among our best courses,” he expresses. 

This strict tracking system was valued by many community members and seen as an indicator of competitive and desirable education. However, outsiders in support of this system seldom had the chance that Witherspoon, teachers and students had to observe the harmful, internal effects that tracking inflicted.

In fall of 2010, Witherspoon, alongside the school board, announced a new structure for the following school year and beyond that aimed to provide access for all students to partake in ETHS’ “best courses.” That structure was Earned Honors. 

The first target was a beloved honors English course available at the time only to high-achieving incoming freshmen. Placement was determined by the EXPLORE test, and, unsurprisingly, the majority of the students placed were white. 

Earned Honors, now known as Pathway to Honors, formatted classes in a way that allowed all students to learn the same curriculum and have the opportunity to earn honors credit through assessments or projects. While many viewed this as a creative approach to eliminating classroom and curriculum disparities across students, a large population also publicly opposed the notion. 

On Nov. 29, 2010, ETHS hosted a public school board meeting regarding the possibility of implementing Pathway to Honors classes. Community members crowded into the ETHS auditorium to listen and speak at the meeting that lasted nearly three hours.

“There were so many people, we had to start holding our meetings in the auditorium with microphones in the aisles so people could speak,” Witherspoon shares. “We would sometimes have people lined up from the microphone on each aisle all the way to the back of the auditorium waiting to speak; almost all speakers were against it. We had a lot of comments made that were just absolutely shocking and showed some severe racial bias.”

 A little over halfway through the Nov. 29 meeting, a white man wearing a red tie stood at “microphone two” and introduced himself as Henry Latimer, a father of an ETHS sophomore at the time. 

“First, I would like to address why I think you’re hearing some objections. Many of us with children who have worked hard to get them into honors classes do look [at] the world and changes [that take place] with grave concern that our children will have to struggle mightily just to stay in place. Anything that may be perceived as endangering their opportunities is looked at as somewhat askance, no matter how noble the goal.” 

Latimer darts his eyes from the stage in front of him to the paper in his hand, then continues. “I think that we can also all agree that diminishing the opportunities for those who do have them now isn’t going to lift up those who don’t.”

Campbell recalls harsh memories of opposing stances in board meetings that were often embedded in racist language and ideology. 

“Those days were terrible … This one lady [was] yelling at one of my students at the time. She was a white woman, yelling at a Black girl, saying this is all about reparations. I had never seen that kind of racism before. I’m from the South Side. I had never seen a white person with such anger yell at a person of color until I got here. The blatant racism was just awful.”

Underlying racism also lined complaints about the program. A predominantly white group of parents shared concerns surrounding the cost of easier classes for their top performing students. 

I had never seen a white person with such anger yell at a person of color until I got here. The blatant racism was just awful.

— Dr. Marcus Campbell

An Evanston RoundTable article summarizing the Nov. 29 meeting describes how “One parent asked whether transcripts would look different, and if this proposal ‘will hurt my child’s chances of getting into highly selective schools?’”

This fear, layered with individualism and racism, was quickly shut down by Witherspoon that night.

“‘That sorting and labeling is not working,” he declared at the meeting. “If it locks out students so that they can never experience this high-powered school,” he added, “then we’re not doing our job. We will finally be a school that does not put lids on its students.’”

Speakers stationed at microphones was only one force Witherspoon was working to combat. Criticism regarding detracking took many forms, many of which exhibited uncivil territory.  

“I was getting threats. People were reading about it in other areas [and] sending anonymous letters or messages, literally threatening my wife,” Witherspoon recalls.

The restructuring also caught the eye of larger crowds. To Witherspoon’s surprise, the most prominent newspaper in the Chicagoland area was eager to share its opinion.

“On Sunday, I had to go to O’Hare [Airport. I was going] to fly down to Florida to be with my family for Christmas. I grabbed the newspaper, and we go to the airport, we checked in and then we went to the gate. I open up to the editorial of the Chicago Tribune on a Sunday and the headline says, ‘Honors? Horrors!’ The Chicago Tribune wrote an editorial on how misdirected I was. Those were interesting times.” 

To this day, the article, published on Dec. 17, 2010, can still be found on the Chicago Tribune’s website. In a standalone paragraph, the article boasts, “We’re with the protesting parents on this one. This is a terrible idea.”

Despite the varying levels of objection, Pathway to Honors garnered a lot of support from the community.

Campbell shares how “There [were] a lot of parents who said this is exactly what we should be doing. You know, a lot of Black and white and Latinx parents who said, ‘Yeah, this is exactly what we should be doing.’”

Kimberly Frasiar, ETHS class of ‘89, was one of these parents sharing their support at the Nov. 29 meeting.

“I have no doubt that if I had been given the opportunity for mixed level classes, my opportunities in this building would have been different,” Frasiar described. “That is why I requested next level classes for my children. I commend Dr. Witherspoon on his recommendation that all students will be given equal opportunities here at ETHS.”

Wilma Turner, author of Everyday Racism in America and the Power of Forgiveness and an audience member who described being one of 13 Black students to integrate Charleston High School in Charleston, Mo. in 1962, illustrated at the meeting how impactful the school board’s step towards equity was to her. 

“I wish someone in my high school years ago had cared enough to fight for me.”

Turner continued to draw connections between her experience at Charleston and then-present realities at ETHS and across the nation. 

“The struggle over how to educate minority students is not much different than it was nearly 50 years ago, when I was a high school student. They just don’t call you names out loud and throw tomatoes at you anymore. They use tracking.”

Campbell continues to reflect on the program’s supporters. “There were a lot of co-conspirator allies who also stepped up and said, ‘This is what my experience has been.’ Students, former students, who all spoke up and said: ‘This is exactly what we should be doing.’”

In turn, despite receiving a petition signed by more than 300 “recognized community leaders” requesting to halt the path to detracking, the board unanimously passed the new structure.

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