I teach at Cambridge Rindge and Latin high school. Rindge sits in the shadow of Harvard University—one of the best institutions for higher learning in the world. Yet, despite many who insist that my school’s diversity and opportunity are afforded to all students, I know otherwise. Here, students begin the ninth grade on one of two tracks: the (misnamed) College Prep track or the Honors track. The College Prep (CP) track (or “Colored People” track as some students unofficially call it) serves students of color, students with disabilities, students of lower socioeconomic class, and others. The Honors track tends to include students who are white, middle or upper class, and who have parents who are actively involved in their educations.
Students experience education differently depending on their track designation.
CP students are placed into the Honors or CP track by their eighth-grade teachers, who make recommendations based on how a student has performed in middle school. Parents can intervene and request their child be moved up or down a track, but, for most CP students, their fate is sealed before they even enter the doors to begin their high school experience. Once students enter the CP or Honors track, they seldom, if ever, leave.
I wasn’t satisfied with that reality. Since I began teaching at CRLS five years ago, I was concerned with what I was seeing. Of the nearly 1,900 students, young people of color were seldom, if ever, in my Honors or AP English classes. There was only one way to figure out what was happening and whether I could change the outcomes. I asked to teach CP classes. After a year or so in CP, I realized that the kids of color in those classes were just as bright, just as inquisitive, and oftentimes even more willing to take academic risks than my Honors students.
Why, then, were they not in those Honors classes?
When I asked students why they didn’t want to take Honors classes, their responses were multilayered: they worried they didn’t know how to participate in academic discussions; they didn’t think they could keep up with the pace of the class; they did not want to be the only student of color in those classes. Many of the reasons students gave for their hesitation to take upper-level classes were ones I knew I could teach them: how to develop the stamina to read longer texts, how to draw on evidence to support a claim, how to talk to a teacher when they had a concern. I also knew they needed the often intangible “soft” skills (that include self-advocacy, timeliness, resilience) that help them to keep moving forward. Most importantly, I hoped to create a cohort of students that could take Honors and AP classes together, reducing the isolationism that kept so many from even considering the opportunity these classes offered.
And I stressed that we are intellectuals. All of us.
The desire to teach CP students with the goal of preparing them to enter and remain in the Honors track for the remainder of their high school careers became my primary drive over the last two years. I asked to pilot a class I call Honors Prep. Here, I work with students to teach them the academic skills and behaviors to succeed in upper-level classes.
With few exceptions, students have been able to make the transition from my class into Honors.
My research question is “In what ways does teaching students to develop academic behaviors and strategies prepare them to excel in advanced literacy classes?”
This study explores what happens when cohorts of underserved tenth-grade College Preparatory ELA students participate in a yearlong ELA class. The first semester of the class is Honors Prep, intended to equip them with the strategies and behaviors needed to be successful in the second-semester Honors English class and beyond.
My hunch is that if I explicitly teach students the academic strategies and behaviors they need, they’ll be able to enter the Honors and Advanced Placement ELA track. More importantly, though, giving students the time to practice and become proficient in those academic skills and behaviors over the two semesters will prepare them to remain on the advanced literacy track for the remainder of their high school careers. Equally important, creating a cohort of students that take upper-level classes could diminish the feelings of isolation that many students of color report being a barrier for them to either enter or remain in upper-level classes.
Kim has worked successfully to address an achievement gap among struggling readers. She hopes her work in Cambridge helps other educators see the “potential in their historically underserved students.” Throughout her career as a teacher and through myriad leadership roles, Parker has been an advocate for classroom educators and sees her most powerful role as an educator who helps students grow their love of reading and find a book they’ll be able to connect with.