In a high school that's one of America's best, according to national magazines, but where students from the humble brick apartment buildings south of the railroad tracks often feel out of place in advanced classes. A school where the nearly all-white teaching staff politely sidesteps conversations about racial equity, even as they try to build an academic playing field where all students can win.The high school is just to the north of these tracks (the Overland Route) and the physical plant compares favorably with that of the adjacent Wheaton College.
In the classroom, there's less tracking of students now than was once the case.
At Wheaton North, there are three levels of classes: intermediate, or "I-levels," the default track, yet still considered college-prep; advanced, or "A-levels," and Advanced Placement. Low-income and minority students are overrepresented in I-level classes and underrepresented in AP classes.In addition, school administrators now encourage teachers to identify students who have potential for the A-level and AP classes. That motivates students to rethink their priors.
Minority and low-income students are more likely to be suspended, and they're twice as likely to fail a class as their white peers. And even though more than 8 in 10 minority students here apply to college, they're far more likely to choose two-year colleges than their wealthier, white peers.
Wheaton North started work to change those patterns six years ago by dropping its lowest track of classes: remedial.
"If you walked into an R-level class, it was 75 to 80 percent minorities, kids from low socioeconomic backgrounds," said English teacher Nicole Blazier. "The high concentration of kids with weak skills just wasn't right for those kids."
Knowing those students would need extra support in a default college-prep curriculum, the school established a co-teaching system. A teacher of special education or English-learners joins a regular teacher in all core I-level courses that include students with disabilities, those learning English, and those with weaker skills.
Last year, administrators gathered to analyze students' grades, PSAT scores, and attendance to identify those who might do well in AP. They sent the list to teachers and asked for feedback.The article notes a variety of challenges continuing to confront students, and teachers and the academic initiatives themselves. Nobody, however, is giving up on the basic idea, which is to overcome limitations on students that they impose on themselves, or perceive as being imposed by others.
The form was deliberately designed to make it hard for teachers to say no. Their only response options are to recommend a student for AP, recommend a student on the condition that he or she takes a summer "bridge" class, or offer explanations.
Multiple teacher recommendations triggered a conference in the main office.
Eva Barg, a senior who's white, remembers the day she was called down to the office. She'd lurked below the radar for two years, trying not to draw attention in I-level classes.
But the vote of confidence she got in the meeting, where she learned of her teachers' recommendations, felt like a lightning bolt.
"It changed the way I thought about myself," Eva said. "I thought I wasn't as smart as everyone else."
She took the school's three-week summer bridge program to prepare students for AP and got an A in AP English her junior year. A huge smile spreads across her face as she tells this story. Now, she's taking two more AP classes.
Summer bridge is a key weapon as Wheaton North tries to shatter old class-taking patterns. For three weeks, three hours a day, students work on academic skills and study habits. Counselors hand-schedule those students into AP classes with the same teachers they had in summer bridge.
Is anyone in institutional research at Northern Illinois University following the progress of Wheaton North graduates?