Photo by Lara Gillingham
Principal Kimberly Martin remembers eagerly awaiting the first day of school in 2015. She was new to Wilson and was thrilled by the prospect of working in a diverse community where students of all backgrounds learned together. But as she made her way through first period classes introducing herself to students, it quickly became apparent that the diversity she had anticipated with such zeal was not reflected in the classroom.
“I would go into a classroom and realize, ‘there’s shockingly only white students in this classroom.’ Then I’d run to the next classroom and it’d be all Black and Latino. We have classrooms that are segregated by race. Nobody prepared me for that,” recalled Martin.
Last year, 91 percent of white students were enrolled in one or more honors or AP classes, compared to 59 percent of Black students and 54 percent of Hispanic students.
Honors and AP classes provide a rigorous academic environment intended to challenge students and ensure they are better prepared for the workload and expectations that accompany college. In addition, enrollment in honors or AP classes significantly boosts a student’s GPA.
Until the current school year, incoming freshmen were recommended for either the honors or the on-level version of English and biology classes by their middle school teachers. Alice Deal Middle School, which is predominantly white, recommended 84 percent of their eighth graders for honors classes. Zero students were recommended for honors classes from Hardy, Wilson’s predominantly Black feeder middle school.
Honors for All, an initiative implemented by Martin at the start of the current school year, changed this system. The program aims to close the prevalent opportunity gap in the school by mandating that every freshman student take honors English and honors biology. The hope is that if students are exposed to advanced classes their freshman year, they will be more likely to choose to take advanced classes as they move through their high school career.
Halfway through the year, feelings towards Honors for All are overwhelmingly positive. In a series of interviews conducted by the Beacon, seven of the nine freshman biology and English teachers said they thought Honors for All was a good decision. The outliers felt that they could not answer the question, as they are new to the school and don’t have a means of comparison.
“The overall conclusion I’ve drawn is that all the ninth grade students at Wilson are capable of being successful in an Honors English class,” said English teacher Natalie Zuravleff, who is new to Wilson this year. At a Diversity Task Force meeting this month, several teachers testified that prior to this year, they had been teaching their on-level classes with less enthusiasm and rigor than they devoted to their honors classes. Honors for All changed this, and also eliminated any subconscious bias they held towards individual students.
Also at the Diversity Task Force meeting, several students said that they likely would not have taken advanced classes at Wilson without the Honors for All program, but are now very likely to take advanced classes beyond freshman year. In a survey of 142 freshmen conducted by The Beacon, 61 percent of students said they were planning on taking more honors and AP classes in the future, even before taking honors biology and English. An additional 32 percent of students said they’re planning on taking more honors or AP classes in coming years because of the confidence and practices they’re developing with Honors for All. Only seven percent said they had no plans to take advanced classes in the future.
As with any new initiative, there was initially concern and skepticism. Community members worried if making every class honors would simply mean “dumbing-down” the curriculum, or if having mixed-level classes would result in behavioral issues. These concerns were largely disproven. Teachers have modified the English curriculum particularly to be more rigorous than before. They worked to emphasize analysis in essay prompts as opposed to summary, added an extra layer of outside reading, and disregarded any suggested tasks or classwork that they thought would feel elementary to the students. They report that classes are actually more reigned in this year than they have been in the past. “The concerns about behavior were racist in nature and I think that the kids have done a really good job of proving those concerns wrong,” said Zuravleff.
Though teachers recall feeling excited going into the year with the new initiative, they also expected challenges, including catering to a range of skill levels and ensuring that no one fell behind or felt intimidated by the rigor of the course. Overall, students have made the teachers’ jobs easier so far in their willingness and effort to succeed in the honors classes. “I see very few kids saying things like, ‘this is too much work’ or ‘I don’t know how to do this.’ That’s not really showing up,” said English teacher Lauren Hartshorn.
Not only have students been active and committed, but the mixed-level nature of the classes has created a different classroom environment and encourages collaboration. Lisa Grymes, who has been teaching at Wilson for many years, remembers how on-level classes felt last year. “I had some classes with maybe 18 kids in there, and maybe only three or four who really tried. Now, I kind of see everyone trying, because that’s the habit,” she said. “I love watching kids pull each other through.”
“The range of skill levels is something that works in a really complicated way to motivate and empower students,” echoed Zuravleff.
Teachers were unanimous in their support for the continuation of Honors for All: most think similar programs should be in place for 10th grade as well. Many teachers cited built-in remediation time for struggling students as an important improvement that should be made to the program, perhaps seen as the addition of a support class next year, if the initiative is to continue. But beside this relatively small change, ninth grade teachers have not noticed any glaring downsides to Honors for All.
“I don’t see any drawbacks,” said Grymes. “I see a struggle, but that’s how you make moves and make changes. So I’m in. I think it was one of the best moves we’ve made.”•