INFOGRAPHIC BY ROWAN ROUDEBUSH
At 8:20 am, students log into Zoom or enter the classroom for their first class of the day. Should that class be an honors course, there is a significant chance that they will be greeted by a room devoid of Black students.
At the high school, any notion of racial equity is discredited by the disproportionate number of Black students in standard classes. This disparity is strikingly obvious for science teacher Kate Wooley.
“In the days of in-person learning, you could walk down the hallway and you could tell which class was standard and which class was honors just by looking in the window,” Wooley said.
Based on the course enrollment data for the 2020-2021 school year, Black students at the high school are 140% more likely to be in a standard class than white students. But the racial disparities at the high school run deeper than this simple statistic: the oppressive and persistent force of prejudice seeps into fundamental parts of how education is structured in Brookline.
According to METCO Coordinator Malcolm Cawthorne, course recommendations, which start in eighth grade, are often biased.
“There would be kids who had B pluses in honors Geometry that would be told they should take standard algebra the next year,” Cawthorne said. “Of the recommendations that are standard, it’s disproportionately kids of color.”
According to Junior Obioma Ukomadu, students of color in younger grades are rarely expected to perform as well as their white classmates, and are not encouraged in the same ways. These low expectations also come from peers at the high school.
“There definitely are times where I’ve walked into certain classes and I get looks or people just don’t believe on first interaction that I’m smart enough or I’m the type of person who would be interested in taking that class,” Ukomadu said.
To better understand the disparities in course levels, the social studies department assembled a team in 2018, according to Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator Gary Shiffman, who is taking a leave of absence this year. The team researched how easy it is for students to move between standard and honors classes.
“We saw things that weren’t completely shocking, but still alarming,” Shiffman said. “In the cohort we studied, if you were a Black boy in a ninth grade standard class, you would be in standard for the rest of your social studies route.”
A variety of socioeconomic factors feed into this cycle of racial disparities at the high school. Over the summer students of color often fall behind more than white students, Adrian Mims, founder of The Calculus Project, a program that helps minority students succeed in high level STEM courses, said.
“Imagine year after year after year, you’re never doing anything enriching to keep your brain fresh. Eventually over time as that compounds, you will fall at least a year or two below grade level,” Mims said. “When you look at summer enrichment programs around STEM, a lot of them you have to pay for.”
Mims said that paying for these summer programs creates a barrier for students who need to supplement their family income, a disproportionate amount of whom are Black.