Viewpoint: ‘Honors for All’ improves equity at Wilson High

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Wilson High School is located at 3950 Chesapeake St. NW in Tenleytown. (Brian Kapur/The Current/September 2016)
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In this time of emboldened and violent white supremacy, it is especially important to draw attention to initiatives that advance equity. Wilson High School has taken concrete steps to close the opportunity gap, create a better learning environment for all of its students and confront systemic racial inequalities.

Starting this year, under the new “Honors for All” curriculum, all Wilson freshmen will take honors English and biology. Last year, the Wilson Diversity Task Force (which I founded and facilitate) and the Academic Leadership Team analyzed student data and found stark differences in enrollment in honors and Advanced Placement classes based on race and ZIP code. Each entity independently proposed the Honors for All concept to help close this student achievement gap.

The Honors for All curriculum is an essential step in challenging systemic racism. Traditionally, Wilson has either followed the recommendations of middle school teachers to determine class placement, or freshmen have had the chance to self-select into classes. With these methods, placement decisions have too often been rooted in a culture of disparate expectations, stereotypes and internalized privilege and oppression. It is well-documented, as in the book “Learning Power: Organizing for Education and Justice” by Jeannie Oakes, John Rogers and Martin Lipton, that “African American and Latino students are more likely to be placed in lower-level classes than white students with comparable scores.” In our case, teachers at one feeder middle school were recommending almost all of their students for honors courses, whereas teachers at another feeder school were recommending virtually no one.

The self-selection problem is similarly tied to societal expectations stemming from racism. Recently, I interviewed a number of Wilson freshmen during their lunch hour. I asked a group of African-American boys whether classes at their middle schools had been segregated by race. Many of them nodded yes, and Isaiah offered his explanation: “Because white kids are smarter.” I asked Isaiah how he was finding honors biology and English at Wilson. “They’re fine,” he reported.

Isaiah’s underestimation of his own and others’ potential is understandable given the damaging interactions too many students of color experience in school. Last year, several students of color shared anecdotes with the Diversity Task Force, often provoking nods from other students in the room. One black student reported: “I walked into my AP class and the teacher asked: ‘Are you sure you are in the right classroom?’” Another remembered: “I knew the answer, but my study group members wouldn’t accept it.” White students are exposed to the opposite messages based on their race, and as a result gain motivation, self-confidence and even a sense of entitlement to take more challenging classes.

The Honors for All curriculum enables Wilson students to learn alongside each other. Under the old curriculum, racially and geographically segregated cohorts of students were grouped together freshman year and remained in those groups throughout their time at Wilson. Such a system deprives students of the opportunity to learn from each other and build lasting social relationships across racial lines.

Some are concerned that a change to Honors for All is sure to engender fierce parental objections. Although there are certainly reported cases of (primarily white) opposition to such policies, there was no such thing at Wilson. Principal Kim Martin remembers raising Honors for All at meetings of the Parent Teacher Student Organization and the Local School Advisory Team, as well as at multiple parent breakfasts and the incoming freshman parents meeting. “It wasn’t an issue,” she happily summarized, somewhat surprised.

Others worry that Honors for All will be too much for struggling students and hold back advanced learners. Wilson honors biology teacher Katherine Dougherty, who has taught classes at both levels in past years, has not found this to be a problem. “Every year there are kids who struggle in on level and kids who struggle in honors, so if they are spread out evenly we basically end up with the same amount struggling in each class this year,” she explained. “I am having some students who are finishing much earlier than others and are complaining, but that has happened in honors classes and on level classes in the past, too,” she added. So far so good.

African-American freshman Ramant shared her take on why we are implementing Honors for All: “I guess so everyone’s equal.”

That’s the goal.

Rachel Laser is founder and facilitator of the Wilson Diversity Task Force and works as a consultant on bridging racial and cultural divides.