‘First Class’: a community dedicated to academic excellence
January 28, 2022
Evanston Township High School and the City of Evanston are places where students and families expect a specific definition of excellence; a definition that demands academic success and is rooted in white supremacist and capitalistic ideals built to include some and exlude others. This expectation isn’t new, dating back to Northwestern University’s founding in 1851.
In 1982, the theme of ETHS’ yearbook, the Key, was “First-Class.” The senior class was taking pride in their high grades, AP classes, college scholarships and SAT scores.
“We want to continue the advance of civilization, so we tirelessly uphold the ‘First-Class’ principles nurtured during our years of high school education. We stand upon the threshold of a future that will most certainly be conceived in our image,” the Key staff wrote to introduce the theme that year.
When Nathaniel Ober became superintendent of ETHS in 1981, expectations were high. He entered as a decorated Harvard graduate and school administrator. While at Harvard, Ober studied under James B. Conant, Harvard’s president and a leader in pushing the model of large high schools across the country. Ober had spent much of his career working in public schools and performing various roles. The ETHS school board was impressed with Ober’s success in working at racially integrated schools and hired him in hopes that he would emphasize racial equity at ETHS.
“The community he came to houses a diversity of ethnic backgrounds, incomes, housing, and social patterns—one of the reasons people choose to live and raise their children in Evanston. It is also the reason for the school’s fine national reputation,” Liane Clorfine, a Chicago Tribune journalist, wrote in 1981.
ETHS was one of the first high schools in the country to pilot college-level Advanced Placement (AP) courses in 1955, and the school took great pride in its plethora of advanced classes during the early 1980s. This correlated with ETHS’ commitment to having a high rate of students attend college, which was already three in four graduates. To achieve this ‘fine national reputation,’ the school valued academic accomplishments above any other form of student achievement, a notion that was rooted in white supremacist ideology. ETHS used tools such as tracking to perpetuate this education method.
Tracking led to evident racial segregation among various levels of the same course. Specifically, higher-level courses were made up of predominantly white students. Since many Black and brown students started their high school career in lower-level courses due to systemic structures in place in elementary and middle schools, many were barred from higher-level courses that were part of the path towards “excellence.”
As community members began to challenge this discriminatory structure, people’s perspectives also fluctuated with regards to what “excellence” meant in a school setting. This resulted in a change towards the standards and tools that were utilized to achieve a ‘fine national standard.’ As the perspective on excellence shifted, ETHS followed suit and implemented many detracked classes in the 2010-2011 school year. While AP courses and Advanced Math curriculums remained, the goal of detracking was to give all students access to the best curriculum, rather than a curriculum that varied based on course level placement.
“There’s obviously a lot of reasons to be concerned about the way that tracking puts us at the risk of expanding the achievement gap,” Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss shares. “There are also certain challenges that come with detracking, and I’m glad that we have dedicated people who are deputized with the job of working through those difficult issues.”
Recent changes signify how the ETHS administration continues to redefine “excellence,” stepping away from the racist systems that the school relied on for years in pursuit of the term. However, ETHS’ journey towards understanding that its definition of “excellence” needed to evolve did not come without a fight.