Manchester high schools have a problem.
Their high-level and advanced-placement classes – historically the province of public school privilege for white kids – aren’t diverse enough.
For several years, the U.S. Department of Education has been admonishing city school leaders and prodding them to diversify the top-level, most challenging high school courses. The reason is obvious: Success in the classes leads to admission to high-caliber colleges. Successful careers follow. And leaders emerge, people with the skills to become mayor, governor, even president.
In a lengthy letter sent to the Education Department last fall, former Superintendent Bolgen Vargas acknowledged the low level of diversity of high-level classes at Central and Memorial high schools. But, he noted that the percentage of minorities in West classes exceeded the percentage of minorities in the school as a whole.
In fact, it may have gone the other way. West doesn’t have enough white kids, especially boys, enrolled in the school’s most challenging courses.
“There are two (white girls) in my (Level 4) English class,” said Kimiya Parker-Hill, an African American junior at West, before pausing. “Is Bosnian white? Then there’s four.”
So what’s happening? I visited West recently to speak to Parker-Hill and two fellow students, all juniors who typically enroll in Advanced Placement and Level Four classes. (Manchester separates many of its high school classes into four levels.)
“I don’t remember having the option,” said Tiffanie Cheng, who emigrated to Manchester from China at the age of 10. All three said they did well in algebra in middle school. Their middle school teachers told them to enroll in high-level classes as freshmen.
They did so. They met other high-achieving students. They formed a peer group.
“I feel like all higher-level people take the same classes,” Parker-Hill said. “That’s all we see all day.”
Of course, the white kids at Central and Memorial have the same experience. (Manchester School of Technology does not track its classes).
And, breaking into those classes can be intimidating.
Zeynab Osman, a graduating senior at Central, recalls the Level 3 U.S. history course she took last year. She was the only black student, and whenever topics, such as lynchings or discrimination arose, all eyes were on her.
“It got awkward, they looked at me like I had all the answers,” said Osman, a member of Young Organizers United, which is pushing for changes in Manchester’s tracking system.
Many blacks remain in lower classes because their peer groups provide comfort, and Osman said Central teachers discourage minorities from enrolling in higher level classes.
She took Level 2 and 3 classes through her time at Central. She plans to attend Keene State College and wants to become a criminal defense lawyer.
Although in different ways, West has the same problem.
The three students said most of the West students see AP classes as intimidating. Others see them as a lot of work and question the reward.
“The result is more school, and they see no point in it,” Parker-Hill said.
The three students I spoke to said motivation comes from one another and teachers for the most part.
“I’m doing it for my father,” said Gloria Denis, who lives with her father, a bus driver, and her siblings. “He didn’t finish college when I was born. I want to finish college for him.”
West tries to steer kids into the challenging classes. Principal Richard Dichard said he hosts a breakfast for promising students.
In September, it looked as if he had succeeded when several white boys showed up for the first day of an AP history class, Denis said.
But they had not done the summer reading and realized the work involved.
“They all just left,” she said.
Parker-Hill said there are practical reasons, too.
A high school student may have to babysit a sibling and can’t stay after school for extra help. Some students don’t learn through books and lectures, the traditional ways that high-level courses are taught.
While Dichard said he’s working at changing the culture, he is a strong advocate for a more drastic change: He wants to eliminate the four-level system, reducing them to two – regular and honors.
Brain research shows that a kid will generally meet whatever expectations he or she faces, Dichard said.
“There’s no levels, there’s no (Individual Education Plans) in the world out there. The world doesn’t tolerate that,” he said.
The school board is going slow. About a month ago, Vargas held a special meeting to address the tracking system, according to Sarah Ambrogi, the chairman of the board’s Curriculum and Instruction Committee.
Tracking “doesn’t have a tendency toward equity,” said Ambrogi. She said the real change has to start in middle school, where middle-school algebra is the district’s first step in segregating students based on their academic abilities.
Any change would have to be phased in, and only with a lot of input from parents, students and teachers, Ambrogi said. She expects the board will make a decision some time in the next school year.
Meanwhile, experiments will continue.
For example, Dichard has eliminated tracking in health class. What part of health should he dumb down, he asks.
He said the kids in the lower tracks are doing fine in the combined class.
Would the high achievers want a classroom filled with less motivated students?
The girls also said most West students could succeed if they wanted to. And being achievers, they see a challenge.
“We can support them if they let us,” Chen said. “They definitely have the intelligence, they don’t want to show it.”
Mark Hayward’s City Matters appears Saturday in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com.