School Beat: Diversity and Academic Rigor

by Lisa Schiff on October 8, 2009

Diversity, of all kinds, is important in our classrooms. Decades ago our country reluctantly acknowledged that “separate but equal” schools are simply a façade for continued discrimination and in the end can serve no one well. If the vision of a society in which we all can participate to our fullest while treating each other with respect and dignity is to become a reality, then we have no choice but to take as an obligation any opportunities to lay the groundwork for such a society. And certainly such obligations are opportunities, especially in schools, for it is in schools where there are great possibilities for beginning to break down aging yet persistent barriers between people, whether those barriers originate in ethnic backgrounds, language differences, types of abilities or any other distinction.

Such is the challenge San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) administrators and Board of Education (BOE) members are tackling head on right now, as they are hopefully entering the last phases of redesigning our City’s public school student assignment process. Two of their top three explicit goals for student assignment are to:

• Provide equitable access to the range of opportunities offered to students.
• Reverse the trend of racial isolation and the concentration of underserved students in the same school.

In the September meeting of the BOE Ad Hoc Committee on Student Assignment, commissioners stayed true to these goals as they evaluated and discussed proposed assignment approaches and related data in regards to how well those models would advance the SFUSD in its aims. This type of reflection was encouraging to see, because although the above stated goals cannot be achieved by way of a student assignment system alone, they will only be met if the assignment system is in harmony with them.

Many voices have been critical over the years of the BOE and district’s prioritization of diversity in classrooms, often characterizing these efforts as a simplistic or naïve desire to create a human rainbow of ethnicities that will only result in mediocre educational experiences for all. Such a characterization is a diminishment of an essential task before us—providing equal access to quality education for all students. In our heterogeneous society, providing an excellent education must go hand-in-hand with creating diverse learning environments. Fortunately, we have schools right within our own City that can be exemplars for how to successfully challenge students from all backgrounds.

Yes, high performing, highly diverse schools do exist in San Francisco, but often they go unrecognized as such. Their principals, teachers, staff and parents are too focused on the immediate task of working with the students to trumpet their successes, which is a loss for all of us. Just to name a few, and just using the current suite of highly problematic standardized test scores, we can look to McKinley Elementary, Aptos Middle School and Balboa High School. What these schools right in our back have in common are a heterogeneous mix of students that closely parallel the population of students in the school district, principals with a strong vision, and a teaching staff who have universally high expectations for their students.

If anything, diverse classrooms combined with a sincere focus on reducing achievement gaps for historically underperforming groups of students should raise the profile of academic excellence for all students. Many studies point to the fact that some of the most significant factors contributing to the achievement gap are low-expectations for those students, expectations that are embedded in the attitudes of teaching staff, administrators, the school and general community, and even the curriculum and related materials.

Also known is that schools that serve predominantly underperforming students are typically isolated and under-resourced, in terms of money and aggregate experience among the staff. Reversing this by raising expectations, providing professional support for teachers, adequately resourcing schools, and creating a socio-economic mix within schools is promising formula for achieving our goal of diverse classrooms where all children are thriving.

Examples to follow outside of San Francisco also exist, a most illustrative one being the Rockville Centre School District (RCSD) effort in New York, as presented by Carol Corbett Burris and Kevin G Welner in “Classroom Integration and Accelerated Learning through Detracking,” in their chapter in Lessons in Integration edited by Erica Frankenberg and Gary Orfield.. In 1993 the RCSD superintendent declared that 75% of the graduating class of 2000 would leave the school system with a New York Regents diploma, an increase of almost 20% beyond the 58% rate at that time. The New York Regents diploma is obtained by passing a rigorous set of required classes and exams.

According to Burris and Welner, the RCSD approached this by implementing a host of strategies including: eliminating tracking starting with the lowest tracks, thus beginning the ethnic, racial and economic integration that had been missing; ensuring that high-track curriculum was provided to all students, including students with learning disabilities; evaluating progress along with way and adjusting educational strategies as required, for instance by providing support classes and workshops; providing professional development for teachers to address expectations and new curriculum standards; and engaging in constant, honest communication and with parents, teachers and other staff.

The results were astonishing. In 2003 82% of all African American and Latino students and 97% of all White and Asian-American students earned a Regent’s diploma. By contrast New York’s statewide percentages were 26.4% and 66.3% respectively. Clearly there is much that we can learn from the Rockville Centre School District.

Classroom diversity and high academic standards are two attributes of our school system that we should never look at in isolation from one another; they are essential and interdependent aspects of our schools. Classrooms that are diverse along a range of dimensions—ethnicity, family orientation, abilities, language, income levels—provide students from all backgrounds with unique and profound opportunities to learn new ways of being in the world that those of us from older generations still struggle with. There is simply no substitute for these types of sustained interactions, especially in the continuing reality of segregated housing and the comfort-zone groupings that we naturally gravitate to around income and language.

Such learning experiences are not road blocks to the obtainment of a solid education, they simply are apart of it and should never be a reason for a less rigorous academic program.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend Everett Middle School in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco and the PTA and is a board member at the national level of Parents for Public Schools.

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