Magazine Feature

"Something Is Wrong Here"

Denver students confront racial tracking at their high school.
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Illustration by Edel Rodriguez

On a rainy Thursday morning on August 10, 2001, members of the press assembled in front of East High school in Denver, Colorado.

A grand structure modeled after Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, the school looks every bit the institution it has become in Denver. Established in 1875, East High is the city’s oldest public school and one of its most celebrated.

Long recognized for distinguished academic and athletic achievement, East High, according to its prospectus, prides itself on "preparing students to enter a diverse and complicated world."

Huddled under umbrellas as the rain fell around them, junior Shakese Hudley and seniors Marlena McWilliams, Carletta Cowans and Terra Horton watched recent graduate Kara Cayce step in front of the microphones.

Standing off to the side, District superintendent Jerry Wartgow and East High principal Jerry Lee Anderson looked on.

"I think the administration was a little taken aback with a press conference in front of the school," recalls Kara. "When we told them we wanted to talk to the news media on school property to announce our project’s findings, they said we had to go through some drawn-out process to get permission. We couldn’t bother, so we just moved it a little further away in front of the school."

Addressing the media on a more public space was in many ways fitting — Kara and her colleagues wanted their message to reverberate beyond the school’s grounds. Their "project" was a year-long investigation into racial tracking at East High.

Countless interviews with classmates, hours spent researching the issue and weeks assembling the data culminated in a report titled "On the Outside Looking In: Racial Tracking at Denver’s East High School."

What the students discovered is that in a school in which minorities constitute almost 60 percent of the student body, 75 percent of students in Advanced Placement (AP) and Accelerated (X) classes were White. Furthermore, staff at East High were discouraging or misinforming students of color about these classes, in effect "tracking" or sorting these students into inferior and separate classes.

"We’ll be monitoring how well the school does with making sure that everyone gets information and encouragement to take the most challenging classes," Kara told the gathered reporters. "Anything less leaves African American and other students of color behind and with limited preparation for college and their careers. Racial tracking at East High and DPS has to stop."


A Question of Access

"This isn’t just about East High," principal Anderson said afterwards. "This is a problem across the country."

Dr. Anderson’s remarks struck some onlookers as a bit defensive, although understandably so. What principal, after all, in only her second year, would appreciate "racial tracking" being branded on a school as renowned in the community as East High and on an AP program touted by the faculty as a national model?

Dr. Anderson’s comment, furthermore, was indisputable. The consequences of tracking or ability grouping — namely inequitable distribution of educational opportunities for lower-income and students of color — are challenges many educators and administrators have to confront. Even if many schools no longer adhere to formal tracking policies, the practice has been recast by the sorting that goes into filling AP and X classes.

As AP’s popularity has soared in recent years, critics have scrutinized the program's perceived status as a so-called "gatekeeper"— exams and courses that allow some students to "pass through" on their way to a more challenging curriculum, motivated teachers and a crucial advantage in the competitive college admissions process. Even schools that offer a menu of AP classes often place students — especially students of color — on an academic track away from these advanced courses.

AP began in 1955 to provide groups of high school seniors with more rigorous, college-level material in class. Despite many educators’ concerns that AP fostered elitism by removing the more academically accomplished students from regular classrooms, the program grew steadily in the 1960s and ’70s.

Many educators were motivated by the opportunity to teach college-level courses, and students relished the prospect of receiving college credit for scoring well on AP exams. By 1990, some 330,000 students at more than 9,000 schools participated in the program.

The AP juggernaut rolls on. According to the College Board, which administers the Advanced Placement program in addition to the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and Pre-SAT, some 821,000 students at 13,000 schools took 1.4 million AP tests in 2001, the most ever recorded.

With many Americans hard-pressed to praise anything about public education today, many educators and policymakers hail AP as an engine for academic excellence and student motivation.

Despite its formidable presence across the nation, AP is still not offered in about 40 percent of schools, many with predominantly low-income, minority student populations. The realization that AP may be aggravating the already widening gulf between the "haves and have nots" in America’s classrooms has not gone unnoticed by the College Board, which is implementing new outreach initiatives to bring AP to underrepresented communities.

This isn't just about East High. This is a problem across the country.

Nowhere is AP a more prominent and controversial fixture than in California, which accounts for one-sixth of all AP exams taken.

In 1999, the ACLU filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of African American, Latino and low-income high school students in the Inglewood school district, claiming that AP opportunities were not distributed equitably throughout the state. Like many other state university systems, the University of California places a high value on applicants’ AP experience.

High AP scores can significantly enhance an applicant’s grade-point average. Without adequate access to AP courses and with affirmative action now off the table, many students of color in California find the playing field tilted even more to their disadvantage.


A Culture of Segregation

"Kids at school don’t just base their friendships on talking about parties or girls or boys they like," says Antonio, a senior at East High in Denver. "You get to know someone by talking about classes you have together, teachers you both have, tests you study for together, or an assignment you’re working on."

Many educators and social scientists have long been concerned over the effect elite, segregated classes have on a school’s "social culture." The wide popularity of AP programs may have stopped White flight in some communities.

At the same time, however, many experts partly blame AP and other similar programs for deepening racial and socioeconomic divisions within schools that have diverse student populations.

"Academic elitism and social separation feed off each other," explains Dana Moran, a high school teacher in Berkeley, Calif. Moran studies the culture of racial separation in public schools as part of The Diversity Project at the University of California at Berkeley.

"If students aren’t mixing in the classrooms," Moran continues, "they have no reason to do so outside of class, and vice versa. A Black student walks into an AP class and sees there are no other students of color, he or she might think, ‘Hmm, I’m not sure I’m really up to this.’ That student may or may not stay, depending on their level of social comfort — despite what may be their academic comfort."

Still, Moran and other experts aren’t convinced that a more integrated academic setting, shepherded by a wider access to Advanced Placement courses and a relaxation of racial tracking, will reverse social segregation in school. Outside societal forces may be too powerful to neutralize in the classroom.

"Kids live in segregated communities and attend segregated churches," Moran observes. "So why should we expect that students of different races hang out together at school? Unless there is an intentional attempt to disrupt those patterns, separation naturally occurs."

This culture of segregation in schools can be frustrating for educators and parents who came of age during the Civil Rights Movement amidst dreams of an idealized, racially blind society. But, as Moran and others point out, many students today — particularly students of color — do not value social integration as a priority.

East High graduate Kara Cayce concurs.

"Students tend to stay in their comfort zone, with people who have the same experiences and opportunities. Tracking definitely perpetuates the division, but it doesn’t create it. Overall, students today place less emphasis on social integration as long as they have access to the same educational opportunities as White students."


Out of Place and Outnumbered

"East High’s a great school, it really is. I’m glad I graduated from there," Kara says. "But at some point you have to look around you and say to yourself, ‘Something is wrong here.’ "

Kara’s interest in addressing inequities in her own school is characteristic of a burgeoning trend among student activists, according to Wendy Lesko, executive director of Activism 2000, a national clearinghouse on youth activism. Teenagers who once channeled all their organizing efforts in the community are beginning to pause, turn around and look back at their school.

"The educational inequities are mounting, not disappearing," explains Lesko. "Students are becoming more knowledgeable and active in investigating educational policies. The school is their arena. They’re the experts.

"We’re seeing in a few hotspots — Philadelphia, Oakland, Denver — an effort on the part of community leaders to bypass educators, parents or professional activists, and build alliances with students directly," she adds.

During her junior year Kara joined Students 4 Justice (S4J), a multiracial youth-led group affiliated with the Colorado Progressive Coalition that campaigns for student equity and racial tolerance in Denver’s public schools.

Starting out as a volunteer, Kara was soon brought on as a paid student organizer. Central to her duties was communicating with fellow students to discover what issues they wanted S4J to address. As she consulted with her classmates, she found the themes of "AP," "bias" and "racial tracking" converging in conversation.

An AP student herself, Kara had long been distressed at being one of the only students of color in her classes. Kara and other S4J members began interviewing a few of their classmates — informally at first, in the library after school — to assemble a sampling of perspectives and decide if and when to proceed with a formal project. What they heard confirmed that a more thorough investigation was necessary.

"I felt out of place and outnumbered."

"AP classes are pushed toward the White kids."

"Everyone [in my AP class] seemed the same — affluent White people."

"Blacks are expected to take regular classes."

Convinced "more had to be out there," Kara and her team developed a one-page student questionnaire inviting students to speak freely about their access to AP/X classes.

An unmistakable pattern emerged: Students of color were being dicouraged from pursuing AP or X classes.

"A lot of students didn’t want anything to do with the survey," Kara recalls. "Some had something to say but were nervous, while others were openly hostile. We would see at the top of a blank survey something like, ‘This isn’t a problem. Racism doesn’t exist anymore.’ Some of the White kids thought we were attacking them. But in the end we got a good sampling of perspectives."

About 950 to be exact. Kara and her team then spent months sifting through the surveys, carefully reading the responses, identifying trends, holding follow-up discussions. An unmistakable pattern emerged: Students of color were being discouraged by school counselors from pursuing AP or X classes.

The disparities between White students and students of color taking AP/X classes were startling: Despite representing only 42 percent of the student body, White students constituted 76 percent of those in these more advanced classes. The data, indicating a serious deficiency in minority access to AP classes, told only half the story.

"My parents wanted me to participate in accelerated courses," remembers East High senior Shakese Hudley. "I spoke with the counselor and we discussed my ideal schedule. The counselor’s response was, ‘With a difficult schedule like this, I would be only setting you up for failure.’ I was discouraged and felt incapable of being successful at selective classes."

Other students of color echoed Shakese’s story. They believed counselors should instead be helping students reach their full academic potential. The surveys contained frank comments characterized by bitterness, sadness and anger, with some students accusing East High of turning its back on one of its stated missions.

Lamented one White senior: "It is sad that at a school that celebrates diversity, its advanced classes do not represent that diversity."


Passing the Torch

"East High students symbolize a growing sentiment among students who are sick and tired of being told they have a ‘voice,’" explains Wendy Lesko. "That simply isn’t enough anymore. They want a response to their proposals and demands. They don’t just want to vent."

In their report "On the Outside Looking In," Students 4 Justice identified goals towards which their members — and, they hoped, the administration — would concentrate their efforts:

  • Foster an environment of high expectations and standards for all students;
  • Create "diverse" AP/X classes that represent the demographics and cultures of East High;
  • Hire more counselors and teachers of color;
  • Call on the Denver Board of Education to end racial bias in tracking students of color at all levels of public schools.

East High Principal Anderson and Superintendent Wartgow didn’t refute S4J’s findings. Wartgow, in only his fourth month as superintendent, praised the students for their initiative and commitment to their classmates.

"I welcome the report," added Wartgow. "I commend the students. We share their concerns. I’m not denying for a moment that we have a serious problem, not only at East High but throughout DPS."

Principal Anderson noted that she had already hired three new counselors and several additional teachers of color. In addition, Superintendent Wartgow called for sensitivity training for all high school counselors throughout the city.

In December 2001, the Board of Education approved seven action steps, including strengthening efforts to widen student access to high level and accelerated classes.

"The school and district have taken some measures but nothing concrete," says Kara. "Every situation is different, so it is difficult to come up with solutions. I don't think the administration understood the magnitude of the situation, but our project, and the media attention it received, made them take the issue more seriously. We just wanted to be the catalyst for long-term change."

Kara, now a sophomore at Temple University in Philadelphia, remains active in equity issues, finding time to speak to groups in other communities about racial tracking.

"The East High project reverberates because it is such a useful blueprint," says Lesko. "It can be sustained because students of different grade levels were involved. And they created something tangible: a report that was carefully constructed, accurate and available for future young activists to read. Not only are the chances for change greater, but they have also seen to it that the torch will be passed to the next rising class."