Government and world history teacher Jerry Neufeld-Kaiser
By B. Denise Hawkins
On any given day, a look inside most classrooms at Garfield High School in Seattle would reveal that students in the upper-level or honors courses were largely White and the students in regular education were largely Black.
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Garfield was no different than other schools in the U.S. that place students into “on-level” or “honors” tracks based on factors such as academic performance and perceived ability to excel or fail. Tracking creates de facto segregation in the classroom.
“The kids felt it more than we did,” says teacher Jerry Neufeld-Kaiser. “They realized that their classes looked homogeneous—largely Black and White. And over the years teachers observed that students placed in regular classes were branded as student who couldn’t learn. We are failing our students of color by not showing them that school is a place where they can succeed.”
So 12 language arts and social studies teachers at Garfield High School decided to do something to close the deep racial divide in their classrooms. They strategized, studied the literature on de-tracking, and organized themselves during and after school for more than a year to replace the status quo with opportunity for all students.
Together they pitched their plan for de-tracking to Garfield’s principal, and found an ally. The principle “saw the impact of de facto segregation, and was just as uncomfortable with it as we were,” reports Neufeld-Kaiser.
Starting this fall, for the first time at Garfield, all ninth-grade language arts and social studies classes are honors level. The new curriculum, “honors-for-all,” eliminates racial, socio-economic, and academic segregation among Garfield students—and takes steps to close the achievement gap.
That first year of high school is pivotal to student success. “If it goes well for them in ninth grade,” notes Neufield-Kaiser, “the rest of their high school career will likely be promising. And if it isn’t, a student could lose their way—or drop out.”
It hasn’t been a perfect process. But this group of educator-activists has learned as they go—scaffolding the new honors curriculum, collaborating locally and nationally with other public school teachers and de-tracking experts such as Carol Corbett Burris, and making a difference in the lives of their students.