Many educators want Massachusetts public schools — closed for now to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus — to be a leveling force, improving outcomes for students of color. But inequities in school services can be a barrier to student success.
Willa Sippel, president of the Student Union at Northampton High, recently conducted a survey for her AP statistics class. She wanted to see how white students’ enrollment in AP classes compared to enrollment by students of color.
Sippel, who’s white, expected there to be a disparity. But the results from her sample group of 60 students still came to her as a shock.
“Of all the students who had taken more than five AP classes, 100% of them were white,” Sippel said.
Numerous studies show black and Latino kids enter kindergarten at an academic disadvantage. Economic inequality, housing segregation, a lack of teachers of color — it’s an opportunity gap that chases black and brown students throughout their K-12 education.
Even in racially integrated schools, students of color are less likely than their white peers to perform at grade level on standardized tests. They’re also significantly less likely to receive advanced academic instruction.
“The other day in my stats class,” Sippel said, “some kid was like, ‘There's no other people of color in here. I just realized that.’ And I was like, ‘Wow, we're just numb to it, I guess, at this point’ — which is really, really unfortunate.”
According to state data, white students at Amherst High are 35% more likely to complete an AP course than their Latino peers. In Northampton, that number is 43% (and as Sippel’s research suggests, the gulf only grows for students taking multiple AP classes).
At Holyoke High, where most students are Latino, white students are 26% more likely to complete an AP class.
High-achieving black and Latino students I spoke with described experiences of feeling isolated in their honors and AP classes.
Zaeill Vargas, a Latina senior at Holyoke High, often feels out of place in her AP and college classes.
“I'm looking around the room and I'm like, ‘Alright, this is kind of awkward,’” Vargas said.
Amina Meckel-Sam, an African American junior at Northampton High, said she loves her AP English class, but the racial dynamics can at times be frustrating — especially since a significant part of the curriculum is the rhetoric of race.
“It's a shame, because I really feel like a lot of the things that we like to study and talk about would be interesting and beneficial conversations for other people of color, but it's just mostly white people talking about it,” Meckel-Sam said.
Amherst junior Petua Makimba, whose mother is a Ugandan immigrant, said having more students of color in her classes would give her more room to excel as an individual.
“Having people of color around you can help empower you to do better and succeed for yourself, more than just for your race, if you're the only person [of color] in your class,” she said.
Makimba said her teachers will sometimes try to offer emotional support for her sense of isolation, but that’s not the kind of backing she wants.
“If you’re sympathizing with me because I'm the only black kid, that's not what I need to hear or be told over and over again,” Makimba said. “I need you to help get other students in this class as well.”
Pearl Shread, a white Northampton junior, co-leads the Students of Color Alliance with Meckel-Sam. Shread said she and her peers, in a way, have gone through an academic sorting.
“I think there's definitely a sort of channeling of different types of students into different areas within the school,” Shread said. “And I think it's difficult when you can kind of feel yourself being pushed along up-channel, almost as if a river was diverging. You can kind of see the people on the other side of the river and you're like, ‘What's happening?’”
Not only are students of color in these three districts less likely to take advanced academic classes, they are also significantly more likely to get in trouble at school.
Norman Pacheco, special education teacher at Holyoke Stem Academy, said this isn’t just about student behavior. It’s also about whether teachers have the cultural experience and knowledge to support the students in their classrooms.
“A lot of teachers just don't have that tolerance level,” Pacheco said. “And it's like, first thing, if it's against the norm, 'You're out.' And typically, the kids that are the first to break that kind of bubble are the kids of color.”
Pacheco, who’s Chicano and Native American, described numerous situations in which his students are seen as too loud, too physical, too in-your-face. He said part of his job is to teach them how to regulate themselves for school without undermining the value of their self-expression.
Sometimes code-switching is about academic success, Pacheco said, and sometimes it can be about survival.
“There was one kid in particular,” Pacheco said, describing a situation in which an African American student was cursing loudly at a teacher. “I just kind of pulled them to the side and I was like, ‘Look, you're on social media just as much as I am. You see how white people react to people of color when they feel scared. And that usually results in them calling the police. And once the police come, there's no guarantee what the result is going to be.’”
Students of color in Amherst and in Holyoke describe numerous disciplinary situations they see as unfair.
Holyoke sophomore Juan Morales said he frequently sees white students receive preferential treatment.
“So, like, let's say a Hispanic student takes out their phone,” Morales said. “It's immediately: ‘Give me your phone.’ But when a white student takes it out, it's always like, three warnings.”
Holyoke High's principal, Stephen Mahoney, said differential treatment is mostly a thing of the past in his school, but that the narrative about it continues. This narrative, he said, causes some students to misinterpret disciplinary decisions.
Last year’s data, however, shows Latino students at Holyoke High were still two times more likely to be suspended than their white peers.
Holyoke had a higher overall rate of suspension, but the racial gap was more severe at Northampton High, where Latino students were almost four times more likely to be suspended than white students.
Northampton Superintendent John Provost said the district is finishing up a revision of its code of conduct, which will “emphasize a more restorative philosophy around student discipline.”
The restorative justice programs in Holyoke and Amherst have had positive impacts on suspension rates and school culture.
But Tom Chang, fifth-grade math interventionist at Jackson Street School in Northampton, and part of the group REAL, or Racial Equity and Learning, questioned his district’s commitment to making substantive changes.
“Truly engaging in a restorative justice approach to discipline involves a lot of training, and a lot of resources, and a big time commitment,” Change said. “And you can't just sort of edit your code of conduct and call that restorative justice.”
Along with other districts in Massachusetts, Northampton was recently reviewed by the state education department to check for disproportionate discipline.
Provost said Northampton received “a clean bill of health.”
“However, that's due to a lot of work and strategies we've done,” Provost said. “Because certainly, we have had a history of differential student discipline rates, and so we've attacked that very aggressively.”
A clean bill of health, in official terms — but the disciplinary and academic disparities for Northampton’s growing Latino population haven’t disappeared.
“We know there's an achievement gap between, particularly, our white students and our Hispanic and Latino students in Northampton,” Provost said. “And we believe that an important strategy for helping to support them would be to diversify our educator workforce.”
With only 6% teachers of color, Northampton has serious work ahead.