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In Cambridge, honors classes for everyone

Ninth-graders Kamya Beckford (left) and Siham Nedloussi are part of a drive to promote high achievement for all students.
Ninth-graders Kamya Beckford (left) and Siham Nedloussi are part of a drive to promote high achievement for all students.(Erin Clark for The Boston Globe)

CAMBRIDGE — A racial divide between classes at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School had long bothered many students, teachers, and administrators. White students packed honors classes, while black and Latino students populated the lower-tier classes known as college prep.

“I would look into classes and I would know right away if it was honors or college prep, based on the demographics of the students,” said Tanya Milner, dean of history. “Teachers were talking about issues of imperialism, power, and social justice — all these important topics — and they were doing it with a homogenous group of white middle-class students, or in the reverse with students who historically are underrepresented.”

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Not anymore.

Rindge has dismantled the academic divide between honors and college prep in the two subjects in which having diverse perspectives perhaps matters the most: English and history. Honors classes in those subjects are now the only option for ninth- and tenth-graders, including those with learning disabilities.

School officials hope the change, enacted over the past two years, will create a more enriching learning environment for all students and boost achievement among students who tend to struggle. They point to research that indicates those students actually learn more in higher-level courses.

Students interviewed for this story overwhelmingly supported the changes.

“I like how they give everyone a chance,” said Kamya Beckford, 15, a freshman, who in addition to honors English and history is taking an honors math class — a subject area that remains divided by ability.

But Siham Nedloussi, 15, said it can be frustrating to be in classes with students who don’t want to participate — even as she supports the idea of pushing all students to achieve at high levels.

Like many other high schools, Rindge is attempting to tackle one of the most vexing problems in public education, closing achievement gaps among students of different backgrounds, which often are exacerbated when students are funneled into programs based on ability.

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The trajectory of those opportunities can be profoundly divergent. White and Asian students take advanced courses, graduate from high school, and complete college at far higher rates than black or Latino students, who typically take the lower-tier courses, which also enroll many students living in poverty or those with disabilities.

In Cambridge, the racial gap is wide between Rindge graduates who earn college degrees and those who don’t, according to state data for the class of 2010, the most recent available. Some 55 percent of white students and 60 percent of Asian students completed college within six years, compared to less than 40 percent of black and Latino students.

Of the 2,000 students at Rindge, 38 percent are white, 29 percent are black, 14 percent are Latino, and 11 percent are Asian. The rest identify as mixed-race or other races or ethnicities.

The changes at Rindge come as many high schools across Massachusetts are trying to enroll more historically underserved students in college-level courses, most notably Advanced Placement classes. The move is out of a belief that students who take at least one AP or college-level course in high school have greater odds of persisting through college.

Cambridge school officials hope their effort will lead more black and Latino students, as well as those living in poverty, to enroll in Advanced Placement courses in the upper grades — by giving them the confidence and knowledge to handle a more challenging curriculum.

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Part of the change, said principal Damon Smith, is “about getting students to have different concepts about themselves.”

“We were forcing students before they even entered high school to choose different pathways — college prep or honors,” he said.

Several studies have indicated that struggling students often learn more in classes with rigorous curriculums and high expectations. For instance, a 2009 review of 15 studies on the topic over four decades concluded that low-ability students performed slightly better in advanced courses than peers in general courses.

That review, conducted by the Center for Research and Evaluation in Social Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, also found that mixing students of different abilities had no adverse effects on the performance of average- and high-ability students.

But some Cambridge parents and school officials have raised concerns about rigor.

Cambridge Rindge and Latin freshmen (from left) Mohammed Ammer, Grant Brody-Lopez, and Jinho Lee worked on an assignment based on “Lord of the Flies.”
Cambridge Rindge and Latin freshmen (from left) Mohammed Ammer, Grant Brody-Lopez, and Jinho Lee worked on an assignment based on “Lord of the Flies.” (Erin Clark for The Boston Globe)

Michelle Nicholasen, who has four children at Rindge, said two of her daughters found their honors English classes lackluster. She said they were each stuck in classes in which the teacher struggled to engage uninterested students and consequently slowed the class down.

“I appreciate the overriding goal and what they want to do to raise expectations for lower-achieving kids, but there are some consequences,” she said. “I hope they figure out the right way to teach to extremely different levels and whether it can be done or not and to be honest about it.”

In March, two School Committee members, Patricia Nolan and Laurance Kimbrough, called for an outside audit of the changes to ensure they were living up to expectations, but they failed to gain majority support. Rindge’s effort at the time had just received an award from the National School Boards Association.

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Cambridge began planning its changes about three years ago. Some administrators were pushing the idea, while some student leaders issued a report on closing achievement gaps that recommended ending the practice of separating freshmen by ability in English and history classes, noting “in classes like these, different perspectives are essential to a strong and engaging learning experience.”

Superintendent Kenneth Salim said the students presented a convincing argument.

“One of their frustrations was how visibly classes were tracked at the high school, particularly honors and AP classes, where disproportionately fewer students of color could be seen,” he said.

Less-capable students are not left to flounder in the honors classes. They also take a related seminar that gives them extra time to complete assignments, receive additional help, and preview new material.

On a recent visit, a diverse group of students in Jennifer Hogue’s ninth-grade honors English class were discussing a chapter of “Lord of the Flies,” in which the boys on the deserted island elect the character Jack as their leader.

Hogue was creative in guiding the conversation: Students broke into groups and created election campaigns for the characters in the book, and then they debated their positions, pulling information from the novel to make their case for or against a character.

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The goal was to make the discussion engaging and enriching for students at all academic levels.

Nevertheless, Camille Rheault, 14, who has an individual education plan to help her with writing and reading complex texts, said the class has been a challenge for her, noting that she often spends two hours after school getting help and that an assistant teacher gives her support during class.

“Being in honors does give you the confidence to do what you didn’t think you could do,” she said, but added, “It’s like, can I really do honors?”

Her classmate, Nelson Bellows, 14, insisted that she was being too hard on herself and has shown throughout the year that she can flourish in honors.

“I think it’s better to challenge students in honors and provide the help,” he said, rather than locking students into academic tracks that too frequently don’t offer them an opportunity to move up.

Rindge has modeled its program in part on a nearly decade-old effort at Evanston Township High School in Illinois, where students of different abilities take the same courses together in an effort to increase access to AP courses. Students of color make up more than half of the high school’s enrollment. Previously, the school had a special course of study for very-high-achieving students.

The strategy yielded results within a few years. The portion of black students enrolled in AP courses in the 11th and 12th grades rose from 29 percent in 2011 to 38 percent in 2014, and the percentage of Latinos in those grades taking AP rose from 28 percent to 51 percent during that time.

In Cambridge, it’s too soon to know if Rindge will see similar increases for black and Latino students in AP courses, but officials are hopeful they will, pointing to student surveys that indicate a greater willingness to give AP a try.

Caroline Berz, a history teacher, said she has already observed one positive result: Honors classes now reflect Cambridge’s diversity.

“Kids are building relationships with kids they may not have seen otherwise,” she said.


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.