Seattle educators dismantle tracking to close the racial divide in their classrooms

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.

Reader Comments

  1. Those of us who attended totally integrated schools because no other option existed, understand the arguments from both sides. We also understand that an advanced class, say high school math or physics, can be offered without having every class a student takes be selective. Providing advanced coursework in economically segregated schools is more of a challenge simply because there may not be a sufficient number of students to enroll in them to cover the cost. If those students who do qualify leave, the culture of the school can also deteriorate. School choice can create the failing schools that choice policies are supposedly designed to remedy.

    Now that we have this conundrum due to housing policies, school choice makes the problem worse…segregating the already segregated makes a bad problem worse. When charters pull out minority kids from predominately minority district schools, the ‘have and have not’ culture divides local minority neighborhoods. Putting magnet programs into low income schools solves a financial problem by reducing under enrollment, but they too often are structured as ‘schools within schools’.

    Reinstituting massive bussing to balance schools is so expensive and impractical in most areas that the consequences could contribute to the decline of public education. Where is the middle ground? What are the policy changes that local communities can use to soften these divides while federal policy plays catch up? We are supporting some mixed income housing developments. It is a drop in the bucket. How do federal housing income qualifications and locations get modified so there is more diversity in socioeconomic status? We hear about the failures of these experiments; where are the successes?

  2. While I understand the intent is good, what about the needs of your above grade level kids? I am appalled that once again we forget about our gifted population who benefit from being with similar ability peers. We cannot continue to forget about our most promising advanced students in order to make others feel better. Thank goodness my own child has the opportunity to be in gifted core classes that are accelerated.

    1. Oh those poor gifted children! Your attitude is exactly why we need to de-track. It contains so much elitism and racism — I’m appalled that you’d admit it in public.

      When privileged upper middle class white people say they want what’s best for their children, they mean they want what’s better than what the other kids get. How else can they keep from leveling the playing field? You should be ashamed. Please go home and rethink all your values.

      1. Let’s face it Jerry. Due to scarce resources, public schools have been forced to narrow their focus to kids mostly from poor backgrounds with special needs many of whom are minority. The govt. expects that privileged parents will probably send their kids to the private system where higher ability level students can get all the special focus their parents can afford to pay for. Unless taxpayers are willing to sacrifice more tax dollars for public schools to bolster both gifted and non-gifted programs, the limited resources we have are going to go where they’re needed most…to help support those kids in critical condition that wouldn’t get that same treatment in a charter school or private setting. Unfortunately, this means often short-changing our best public school students.

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