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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