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Getting Students Off The Track

By Jessie Singer

As I walked to my classroom each morning, I looked at the school with the eyes of an anthropologist gathering data. And I began to notice that my regular students were not given a place in my school. Their faces were not photographed as members of student government, their names were not in the entry way's honor roll, they were not members of the yearbook staff, or the newspaper. Many of them worked half time and some even full time at afterschool jobs. Many students had responsibilities caring for younger siblings or ailing grandparents.

One issue of the school newspaper printed an article with an enlarged photo of a line-up of Honda Accords and seniors standing in front of each car. The article said the Honda is the most desired and owned car at Cleveland High School. One of my sophomores walked into class that day and said, "Who does this paper think it's talking to? I wish I had a car - don't they get that some of us have to use the city bus?"

I noticed that the daily line-up in front of the discipline vice-principal's office was often made up of regular students and - more often than not - students of color. I noticed how some counselors visited only honors classes to hand out college and scholarship information. I went to the counseling office to ask a counselor about this policy. She said, "Well, this saves me time. I mean, it's clear that the other kids aren't going on to study. If they were, they would be in honors classes."

It became obvious that the choice to be in honors does not happen from year to year - or at all - in high school. My second period senior honors class was made up of 32 students, most of whom had been together since first grade. They often shared stories from fifth grade and then laughed together like a family that had built a collection of shared stories through the passing of time. These students not only shared a history; they also shared a culture. Here they were in high school, in my classroom, together again for one last year of English. School authorities had designated these students as honors students from the day they entered elementary school.

The makeup of my regular classes was more diverse: they came from the poorer and less respected middle and elementary schools. Many students were recent transplants to Oregon.

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