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Racist encounters inspire mobilization

January 28, 2022

As the only public high school in Evanston, ETHS welcomed all students in the community from its founding in 1883. Unfortunately, there are limited accounts of racialized experiences and statistics in the school until the 1960s. 

In Mary Barr’s Friends disappear: The Battle for Racial Equality in Evanston, the current assistant professor of sociology at Kentucky State University illustrated her experience as a white woman growing up in the Evanston school system in the ‘60s. Barr’s account signals the evident racialized divide in the career-oriented courses introduced at ETHS 30 years prior.

“The white students typically took classes with an academic focus, while the Black kids took classes with a vocational focus.”

There is nothing wrong with striving for a future outside of academia. However, the education system evidently pushed, and pushes, one idea of “excellence,” which is receiving higher education and acquiring an “esteemed” career. There is a blatant pattern between which students are perceived as capable of achieving this definition of “excellence” (and given the opportunities to reach it) versus those who receive value and opportunity solely based on their capacity to join the working class and serve those that achieve “excellence.”

“The school model we use right now is an outdated one that goes back to the time of cutting industrialization where school systems were very quickly trying to figure out which students were going to work with their hands and which ones would work with their minds,” Bobby Burns, class of ‘04 and current Fifth Ward Alderman, explains. 

As Barr and Burns suggest, in a tracked system, Black students are expected and pushed to work with their hands and white students with their minds. In our capitalistic, white supremacist society, one which requires a certain degree of education to know how to work the system and be respected, ETHS’ system of tracking made it clear who was set up for success and who was not.

In January of 1992, ETHS was struck by a racist incident involving a German teacher and two Black students that had a resounding effect on the conversation surrounding racism at ETHS and what role tracking played in the larger discussion.

Dr. Allan Alson, ETHS’ Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction from ‘90-‘92, reflects on what he remembers of the incident. After hearing three Black male students cause a “loud commotion” outside his classroom after lunch, the German teacher shared some deeply racist, inflammatory comments with his class. From what Alson recalls, the teacher said something along the lines of “They ought to take those kids that do stuff like that and put them in the zoo.”

The incident rightfully caused outrage, and the administration was criticized for a delayed response; so much so that students walked out a few days later to demand faster, more concrete action.

The school organized six town meetings to discuss the incident. Over time, the discussion moved from this teacher’s racist remarks to a discussion of how tracking could be used as a salve towards larger racial injustices at the school if done correctly.

In an op-ed in the May 1992 issue of the Evanstonian, Matthew Price shared an opinion that represents the favored side of the conversation at these meetings

“The advantages [to mixed level classes] seem to be overwhelming because of mixed, diverse classes. Units like immigration, the history of racism/discrimination in America, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s would be greatly enriched.”

Yet, not everyone agreed. At the April 30 meeting, Northwestern University professor James Rosenbaum made inflammatory statements surrounding tracking at ETHS. That same May issue of the Evanstonian stated that the comments were “received as insults to the African American community and the lower class. Many felt that some of the criticisms were directed at Black parents.”

Unfortunately, “After much of the protest and commotion died down, it became apparent that there were many supporters of Rosenbaum in the crowd.” There was a resounding amount of work to be done.

 Alson became the superintendent that fall of 1992. After observing the manifestation of racism in the high school, Alson knew his main focus in his new position with ETHS staff on his first day as superintendent.

“Our first goal,” he says, “was to strive for equity.”

While superintendent, a role he maintained until 2006, Alson implemented various foundations for both success and struggle in relation to the commonly-supported objective of equity.

One of his first actions was to implement a higher minimum GPA requirement for students to participate in extracurricular activities. Alson believed that was a crucial step to raise expectations for all students. Additionally, he created two programs that focused on supporting students of color and low-income students towards higher achievement: Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) and Steps Towards Academic Excellence (STAE). The former superintendent also founded the Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN), which continues to connect students of color from across districts to form relationships that strengthen confidence. All three of these programs continue to run at ETHS today.

Alson also shares an unpublicized method his administration used to promote academic success for students of color.  

“For U.S. History… what we did, which we didn’t really publicize, was a small set of us chose teachers. We knew that there were certain sets of teachers [in which] we believed, very strongly, [would cause] kids of color to have a greater opportunity to believe that they could succeed and ultimately to succeed academically. We made very conscious choices of placing students, and we did that by studying student failure rates.”

The former superintendent highlights an important aspect that plays into the academic success of students of color: whether the classroom is a safe environment to learn and grow in the first place. If a student doesn’t feel seen and respected by their teacher, there is an immediate hindrance towards learning that plays a role in the opportunity gap, also often referred to as the achievement gap. Alson continues to share that the teachers who did not fall into this “safe” criteria were placed in “professional development” that taught them about examining internal biases and building relationships with students.

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