At Evanston Township High School, 14th “Most Challenging” in Illinois, A Question About Honors Classes


Good ‘ole ETHS. (Source: District 202)

This week, The Washington Post released a list of “America’s Most Challenging High Schools,” ranked by the number of AP and advanced tests divided by the amount of graduating seniors. I was surprised to read that my alma mater, Evanston Township High School, was that 14th toughest in the state.

Evanston, a bustling northern suburb of Chicago, is perhaps best known across the country for Northwestern University, which takes up a big chunk of the city’s most valuable waterfront property next to Lake Michigan. But, as a “townie,” Evanston is distinctive for its awkward mix of poor and rich citizens. Driving into downtown Evanston on Church Street, after whizzing by the high school on the right, you will pass the blocks with some of the highest crime rates; across the street are many of the city’s biggest mansions. While I grew up in the “well-to-do” North Evanston, I understood early on that many of my classmates (or, rather, the people I passed in the hallway) were poorer.  ETHS rarely has snow days because, for some of the students, as one teacher told me, the school is their only means of heat and food, in the form of lunch subsidies. In fact, the Post rankings reported 40.8 percent of students qualify for such subsidies.

I am shocked rankings, not because I didn’t have a rigorous education, but because they present a vary different narrative about the current situation at ETHS’ District 202, which struggles to bridge the Evanstonian gap between the rich, poor, white and black students. When I was in high school, nearly all my classes were “honors” or AP. “Honors” literally meant students with high-test scores; “regular” meant a student was performing at their grade level. Unfortunately, “honors” usually signified all students were white. In my freshman honors humanities class (which included history and English), there were only a handful of minority students.

Around the time I graduated in 2009, 92.8 percent of white 11th graders met or exceeded standards in math, compared to 39.2 percent of black students, according to The Chicago Tribune. District 202 confronted the achievement gap a year after I graduated, deciding in 2010 that the next freshman class will take humanities courses together, no matter a students’ test scores (unless they couldn’t read at their grade level). The argument was that being in a class with the best students would encourage average kids to work harder, with the assumption that minorities were mostly average under-achievers. I know this doesn’t work.

My senior year, I took a beginner’s Spanish class. The previous three years, I had been in Japanese and, after discovering my inaptitude for that language, I switched over to a more useful one. Unfortunately, I was placed in a “mixed” class with both honors and regular students, so I don’t remember a single thing my young, enthusiastic and smart “Senorita” tried to teach me. After arriving in class, it took Senorita between 10 and 15 minutes to take attendance — one-fourth of class time. One of the “regular” students usually acted out, possibly calling her a derogatory name, and they were sent to the office. Senorita would then “teach” us, but she had a hard time controlling side conversations and cell phone use. I would sit in my seat and quietly do AP homework. Sometimes I would listen in on other students’ conversations –I remember one telling another he was dealing drugs after school. When a new chapter began, I would complete the entire packet the first day while Senorita tried to get kids to take out their homework.

Last week, Evanston voted in four spots on the District 202 Board of Education. Voters’ main concern was whether or not the new freshman humanities “earned honors” classes, where students had to earn honors status working with everyone else, would continue. (It was extended to freshman biology in 2011.) As reported by the Evanston RoundTable, here are the opinions of each elected candidate who will continue or begin serving on the board next month:

Incumbent Gretchen Livingston (who voted against the biology extension)

I supported the change in the freshman humanities class because it was unquestionably an improved curriculum. The curriculum added more reading, more books, more writing and more regularized method of assessment. This was the reason for my support. The program is still under evaluation.

Bill Geiger

I agree with the Board’s decision to restructure freshman humanities and biology. It was my view that the planning, the preparation, the implementation, the execution were well thought out…Let’s look at those aspects that are not working as well as we like and figure out why and what to do about it, and in those instances where it’s not working, figure out the next step as well.

Doug Holt

I like the idea of the freshman humanities restructuring, which is to broaden and get a wider group of students and enable them to succeed…I would not have supported the change to biology because we were less than one year underway with the freshman humanities after restructuring. I feel it’s too soon, too fast.

Pat Savage-Williams

…I would have supported the restructuring of the freshman humanities in 2010…I think that earning honors and the assessment process is an opportunity to open accessibility for honors courses to students that would not normally achieve that.

The candidates they defeated — Elena Garcia Ansani, Andy Bezaitis and incumbents Deborah Graham and Casey Miller — all agreed with the 2010 restructuring, too, so voters had little say in its continuation.

My hometown — which my dad jokes is the “People’s Republic of Evanston” — certainly always means well when it makes bold, progressive decisions that would end inequality of some kind. But as critics point out, the choice may only end up hurting students who already achieve high, and they do little to help bridge the achievement gap. More than half minority students got Cs or lower in the new freshman humanities course, according to the blog Evanston Now. In comparison, more than 80 percent of the white students received an A or a B. Of black students, 34.9 percent received a D or F grade in the new class.

I cannot say whether freshman in earned honors humanities and biology classes are having a difficult time, my experience with “mixed” classes has shown the model doesn’t work. I’d bet some students in those classes would agree that ETHS is one of the most challenging schools in the country — though not for the reasons the Post meant.