Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Honors Classes: The Need for More Diversity – Part II

By on March 28, 2013

In my recent Edutopia post, I posed a problem that is plaguing many schools today: that of racial inequity in our honors classes.  Many of us at the middle school level are wondering what our role is in bridging gaps of opportunity for minority students to level the playing field a bit before sending our students off to high school.  The problem, in many cases, resides in a subtle tracking that begins to occur as early as 3rd grade.  Middle schools are inheriting these tracked students and looking for ways to help break down the chronic paths, many of which look unsurprisingly defined by race.

We all know that access to honors classes should not be defined by race.  We all know that kids from every demographic are capable of the more rigorous work that an honors or AP class requires.  However, we have also observed that students track themselves when left to their own stereotyping.  This post is about ways that a middle school can perhaps put more odds in a student’s favor in order to help bridge a morale gap, a chasm that can define a student indefinitely if the system isn’t careful.

Two years ago, we thought that we could cut off this trend by simply expanding the classes themselves.  We went from a single honors ELA class at each grade level to two.  The standards were slightly lowered to fill in the enrollment, but it’s been pretty successful.  Kids who barely managed to get in have, for the most part, risen to the challenge.  However, we discovered that even having expanded the program, it still seemed to only represent a single demographic.  The face of our honors classes hadn’t changed.

Nevertheless, there is talk of expanding the program even more.  The plan is to expand from 2 periods to 3 sections of honors for each grade level.  However, rather than drop the standards, we will instead redesign our application process, target certain students to encourage their application submission, and communicate the process differently to encourage a more diverse applicant pool.  By expanding the class even further, the hope is to create an additional cohort of participants.

Admittedly, there are drawbacks to actively recruiting minorities for the honors classes.  For one thing, the few model students left in the mainstream classes go away.  After all, after we doubled our honors classes, the gap between mainstream and honors never seemed more vast.  And admittedly, by opening the classes even more and actively recruiting, this problem will only get greater.

I guess the plus (and I am not sold that this is a plus) is that teachers will not have to differentiate as much, and differentiation still proves challenging to many teachers.  Additionally, if some teachers are not differentiating as it is, then perhaps expanding the honors program helps service kids who were not being serviced in the mainstream classes.

(As I write this last paragraph, I already hear the arguments in my head because, frankly, it’s not ideal.  Targeted minority recruitment might solve one problem, but we know that it doesn’t solve another.)

I can also hear an argument from many as to why we even have honors classes.  I guess the best way to respond to that is to provide a metaphor.  Elementary school is like the beach. You use muscles to walk the dunes.  High school is the open ocean.  It’s deep.  It can be scary.  And, for the first time, you are swimming on your own, getting tired, but using the muscles necessary to reach whatever island awaits you.  Middle school, however, is like the tidal zone.  They enter in and are immediately glubbing for air as the undertow pulls them down.  Then, they are sent spinning and don’t know which way is up.  It’s chaos.  It’s middle school.

And as middle schools, it’s our job that while tweens all flail about, their arms and legs wiggling like those used car lot inflatables, we give them chances to develop those swimming muscles.  And not just to doggie paddle.  It’s our job to teach them the fundamentals of the free stroke, the breaststroke, the backstroke, and the butterfly.  However, if a student enters middle school with the potential to swim but with the skills only granted in a lower-level swim class, how can we bridge the gap to give them a fighting chance in the deep ocean later on?

I would also say that there’s no way parents would let us drop an honors track.  It’s just too familiar a system for many of them.

So that’s what my school has been tackling, and I wanted to share our first steps.


So, what will the classes look like?

* 3 classes of honors instead of only 2

* There will be with 25 honors students per period that would be accepted regardless of demographic.  Then, looking deeper into the application, there will be an added cohort in each period, 10 students that are from under-represented minorities, who show great potential but perhaps were a point or two away from traditional acceptance.  The point is that we are trying to offset a possible earlier stereotyped track in which the student may have been placed.  We are putting faith in that student that he or she will blossom when put in an accelerated peer group.


How are we actively recruiting students from underrepresented minorities?

* Both the 8th grade honors teacher and the 7th grade honors teacher are going around to all ELA classes, including ELD, to talk about honors

* Personalized calls to families in their home language of students with a certain level of CST scores

* Parent Education Workshop with translators focused on the application process

* Personal call from student’s counselor in home language

* AVID teachers talk about honors process during their periods


What does the application process now evaluate?

* CST scores

* Quarterly grades

* Teacher Recommendation

* Certain classroom test scores

* Score on a Timed Written Expository Test

* Add a point for being from a specific underrepresented group


What could be our next Steps for next year?

*Panel of minority honors students from this year talking early on to 6th graders about how to plan their academic goals

* Since we are the feeder school for all of our district’s elementary schools, we want to form mentorships early on for those students entering from our elementary schools who service our greatest Latino populations.

*When we get standardized test scores and grades from elementary schools, make more informed decisions about classes for incoming 6th graders to ensure that they are assigned a teacher who deeply understands and agrees with differentiation.


Middle school is a key developmental crossroads in a student’s life.  As such, schools need to do a targeted reverse-tracking process, one that helps bridge the gap to allow for more students to have access to higher-level classes.

How are you tackling this issue in your school?





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  1. Mariah Cone
    April 5, 2013

    At one of the schools I worked at, the high school program coordinator came up with a genius solution. She made every class in the Humanitas program honors. When students became participants of the program, every class for them was automatically honors. No CST cut offs, no teacher recommendations, no essay to get in, no parent buy-in or buy-out. Honors for every child, from RSP to gifted for 400 students. What a concept. So what did this mean in reality? It meant that all teachers held uniformly high expectations, class assignments were honors rigorous, every child was expected to go to college and be prepared by the school to get there. It also meant that the challenge for the school was adequate differentiation and scaffolding, and a scale up of classes from 9th through 12th grade.

    One last thought… there was conflict with this plan. Many Teachers and counselors outside of the Humanitas program thought it ludicrous. “Isn’t the point of an honors program to separate students by readiness, skill level, disposition, intelligence?”

    My dear friend, the school coordinator’s reply? “Intelligence is not set at birth, but adult-student-and-parent expectations do seem to vary when we apply an “H” to the front of a course title. Is there not enough “Hs” in the label maker?”

    It’s not easy work to change the culture of education in America. Jefferson was the progenitor of “separating the wheat from the chaff” – culling out the leaders and thinkers from the rest who would be farmers. Question I have is, how many farmers do you know today? Isn’t it time we say this isn’t ok?

    As a parent of a child who happens to benefit extraordinarily from terrific honors classes, and schooling steeped in high expectations and great preparation for future – I also watch him suffer from honors classes that aren’t as diverse. What is the long-term effect of looking around the room with no Latinos, but experiencing the gardener and house cleaner from Mexico? It matters to me that my child not dismiss others as less smart, less capable, less – anything – because when he grew up, “those kids” weren’t “smart” like he was. For parents of honors kids, don’t think for an instant that this system doesn’t also hurt our kids.

    • Amy Zimmer
      April 9, 2013

      Hi Heather,

      You were asking for information on honor’s classes at our school sites. Here is my tale.

      I am a high school Math teacher on a temporary assignment in my own teen daughter’s pubic high school (School#1). School #1 was just all that being ranked 184th in someone’s poll. It has 2-3% non-white students.

      My permanent teaching assignment is at another school (#2) We have about 30% non-white students.

      Both of these schools are in Northern Sonoma County, about 70 miles north of San Francisco.

      There are no AVID classes at School #1. In fact, there are no Reading Essentials or other remedial reading classes there. (My belief is that they are really needed!) the only official honors Freshman class is Honors Geometry. You must score Advanced in the CST’s, have a 90% on the Algebra Placement exam taken by ALL incoming Freshman AND have an A in your Algebra class. I was told by numerous parents that the Honor’s Geometry teacher (whom is also the AP Calculus teacher) has told her Freshman Geo. students, “not to marry outside of their gene pool.”

      There are 1300 students in School 1. There is one AP Calculus class of 25, one Honor’s Trig, one Honors Advanced Algebra and one class of Honor’s Geometry. There is one class of AP World History.

      All honors courses in school #1 are examine based, in addition to your CST’s (State scores), and grades. In addition, I was asked to “rank” students for Sophomore entry into AP World History. (After they had take an entrance exam, given official transcripts, and CST’s) (All math teachers were asked to do this for the students wanting to take this class). I am still wondering if this is legal.

      There is a huge sifting process to make sure students are ABLE to be successful in the honors classes at this school.

      You can imagine as a parent and as a student what this kind of school culture this process sets up.

      As a parent, I now have an insiders look at how the system operates. As a teacher and a parent, I am personally appalled.

      School #2 has several AVID classes in all grades. Any student can apply to any honors or AP class, by a letter of intention and teacher’s letter of recommendation. All students must have a C or better in the previous class.

      School #2 has 1700 students

      There are 74 students taking AP Calculus as school #2. 15 have Hispanic surnames. There are 6 sections of Trigonometry (no honors track) and probably 8 sections of Advanced Algebra (again, no honors track).

      The AP test scores for school #1 are undoubtably better. There are 5 sections of honor’s World History (no AP available).

      School #2 had a rebellion by teachers for no honors 9th and 10th grade classes. We lost…it was a PR issue. But we have an open-door policy. You show interest and intention, we save a seat for you.

      I hope this is what you were looking for in terms of a response. I could on…

  2. Faye Kirchhoff
    August 23, 2013

    Hi Heather, I was happy to find our website and curious to check your posts. As an active and involved parent growing and traveling with my three children along their public educational path, I felt concerned about the same honors track issues early on, in a school that offered 4th/5th combo. I felt the gap between honors and mainstream groups almost solely was due to a fact in the lack of race and family economic diversity.

    Having three children with a couple of years spread apart allowed me to collect and sort thru some old and new education/district/school/teacher businesses as much as I could put my finger on making the many variables coherent year after year. In the elementary school that my children attended, yes, the honors track physically began in the end of 3rd grade, borrowing that grades lower than 3rd, subjective tracking took place in classrooms thru differentiating teaching.

    I found that students’ access to an honors track was negatively impacted due to the many variables that influenced an honest selection and application process. Though I can only speak to the variables I witnessed in the capacity as a parent for a 9-yr span, I was left with questions. How could this process be evaluated? I hoped for corrective measures to be attempted. Having read this article, I now can validate why some of the honors selection steps were changed 2 years ago – like the accouncements to the students and families their access to apply for honors classes. Since I didn’t have the knowledge of the statistics of the number of eligible students for honors track, the number of honor classes went to 1 to 2 to 3, then back to 2, etc…at the same time state budget was drained and in cruise control mode…ahhh! I lost trying to put information together as it came in puzzle pieces.

    Your article has have offered me deeper understanding of what educators in your school were trying to do – a huge emphasis in the recruitment process, changes in the selection process, and opening more seats. All of these changes result in greater access to students who, I believe, can and will rise to the expectations.

    I loved that you published this information; it made me feel that your school is truly trying to empower your students. As a parent who believes deeply in raising each child to his/her highest potential, I want to hold hands with educators to ensure that students are given the service they deserve.

    Thank you educators for taking the effort to study the variables involved in

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