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If a classroom is a microcosm of society at large, who leads it and which students are enrolled are hugely influential.
But classroom diversity is not always easily achieved. Although schools have technically been integrated for decades, deeply entrenched barriers and biases can lead to segregation along the lines of race, socioeconomic status and perceived needs and abilities.
Before we explore larger issues of school diversity at our upcoming Kojo Roadshow in Silver Spring, we examine diversity in the classroom with current and former educators and students.
Produced by Ruth Tam
- Kimberly Martin Principal, Wilson High School; @Wilsonhsdcps
- Frazier O'Leary Member, D.C. Board of Education (Ward 4); Former English teacher, Cardozo High School; First Vice President, PEN/Faulkner Foundation
- Nico Ballón Alumnus, Minority Scholars Program at Walter Johnson High School
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking classroom diversity. Tomorrow night, we'll be bringing our show to Silver Spring to talk about education issues like school borders, overcrowding and more. But in preparation for that Road Show, we'd like to drill down on one topic in particular that many of you are thinking about, and that is the aforementioned classroom diversity. Schools have been integrated for decades, but that does not mean that classes -- particularly ones for advanced placement or honor students -- are diverse.
KOJO NNAMDIIn fact, studies are finding re-segregation is now an issue, as many individual schools and classes have become less diverse. So, what does classroom diversity look like in real life and in actual practice? Joining me to talk about this is Kimberly Martin, the principal at Wilson High School in Washington, DC. Kimberly Martin, good to see you again. Thank you for joining us.
KIMBERLY MARTINThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIFrazier O'Leary is a former English teacher at Cardozo High School and a member of DC's Board of Education, representing Ward 4. Frazier O'Leary, thank you for joining us.
FRAZIER O'LEARYThank you very much.
NNAMDINico Ballón is an alumnus of the Minority Scholars Program at Walter Johnson High School and a current junior at American University. Nico Ballón, thank you for joining us.
NICO BALLÓNPleasure to be here.
NNAMDIThe school and classroom diversity, Kimberly Martin, are the subject of endless training, seminars, conferences in schools today. But let's move beyond that technical language. What, in your everyday life as an educator, does classroom diversity look like to you at Wilson High School?
MARTINIt looks something different now than it did when I first arrived at Wilson. When I first got to Wilson, I was quite shocked to see that classes were very much segregated, racially. And, as you mentioned a moment ago, honors and AP classes were predominantly white, and black and brown students were in what we call the on-level classes. We see some differences in that right now, thanks to the Honors Roll program that we're instituting, and other pre-AP curriculum to help students access the best curriculum.
NNAMDITell us a little bit about your students. Where are your students coming from in terms of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, location?
MARTINYeah, you know, we're the most diverse school in all of DCPS. In fact, including public charter schools, we're the most diverse school. We have students that range -- that speak 85 languages. We have students that -- we have international students. We have newcomer students, ESL students, of course, African American students, and we have a lot of students from all eight wards.
NNAMDIYou became principal at Wilson nearly four years ago. On paper, Wilson High School has a diverse student population, so what are the issues?
MARTINThe issues (laugh) -- the issues are not diversity, right, because we have that. We have that in droves. The issue is making sure that we can close the opportunity gap, that all students are getting, you know, the same quality of education and access to the same robust and rigorous opportunities.
NNAMDIWell, what you described earlier were, in a way, two different schools. What steps are you taking to address the challenge of having essentially two different schools within this now (sounds like) ?
MARTINThat's correct. When I arrived, the first parent meeting that I had, a parent asked that question to me directly: what are you going to do about the two Wilsons? And I didn't know. You know, students hadn't arrived yet. It was still summer, but when they did come in, I knew on the very first day of school what it was that this parent was describing when I watched students, you know, sort of filter into different classrooms.
MARTINWhat we did the following year, after looking at student data for an entire year, is institute, in 9th grade, in English and in biology, that those classes are just -- there's only one level, and it's honors. And the teachers of those two departments spent the entire summer rewriting the curriculum, making the curriculum culturally relevant, you know, making sure that we provided support classes for students who were taking that first honor class. And we've seen great dividends. Those students are moving into advanced course work in 10th grade now. Those students are now in 10th grade, and we expect those students to also take AP classes in 11th and 12th.
NNAMDISo how are you defining success? You're calling it Honors Roll.
MARTINThat's correct. We're defining success right now by participation. The students who are, you know, participating in the most advanced curriculum. We hope also that, in years to come, we'll also see their achievement, that is their scores on their AP exams. Right now, we still have a gap and we have a GPA gap. The students that are in -- the students of color that are in these advanced classes are not performing at the same level that white students are, but we're closing that gap. The gap is closing.
NNAMDINico Ballón, you graduated from a top high school, Walter Johnson, in Rockville in 2016. Was diversity or the lack of diversity on your mind back then?
BALLÓNIt was always on my mind, particularly being part of the Minority Scholars Program. Just to touch on that a little bit, it started out 13 years ago in Walter Johnson High School. There was a gentleman from a university who came down to our high school and said they were looking for an African American male with a GPA of 3.0 or higher, to offer him a scholarship. There was no student that matched that description at Walter Johnson High School.
BALLÓNThirteen years later, one of my peers in the Minority Scholars Program, which is a student-led program that worked to tackle the achievement and opportunity gap. So, about 13 years later, one of my friends, an African American male in the Minority Scholars Program, was accepted into every single Ivy League school, and now goes to Harvard University. And I think that speaks volumes of steady achievement that the Minority Scholars Program has had, and the success that it continues to have as it works to close the achievement and opportunity gap.
NNAMDIWhen diversity was mentioned, did you think of it as something that benefitted you, or benefitted the students who were part of the majority population?
BALLÓNI do. I think it brings different opinions to the classrooms. And the greater the diversity in AP classrooms, particularly, then those few minority students don't become just the few. They don't become those token minorities in those AP classrooms. And once those minority -- the Montgomery County public schools is a majority-minority county, so it has to -- those AP classrooms, those honors classrooms have to reflect that, as well. It can't just be a couple minorities in those AP classrooms. They can't feel uncomfortable learning in those AP classrooms. They have to feel confident in those AP classrooms.
BALLÓNAnd you feel confident when you look around and you see students that look like you, when you even maybe see a teacher that looks like you, when you're reading authors that sound like you or come from backgrounds that you come from. And all the diversity plays into the successes of those minority students.
NNAMDIYeah, we're talking about the Minority Scholars Program at Walter Johnson. How would you and the students like you in that program, how were you supported? How did that program work?
BALLÓNSo, it worked in a variety of levels. For starters, I believe the biggest success of the Minority Scholars Program is that it brings together students that face similar struggles in the classroom. They face similar struggles from counselors maybe not wanting them -- maybe not pushing them to take those AP courses, maybe being the only minority in the classroom. So, at the foundation level, it tells you, look, you're not alone. Look at all these other minorities in this program that are also facing similar problems in different AP classrooms. And it says, look, like, we can do this together. We can push you.
BALLÓNAnd then, on a different level, it also serves as -- a lot of people in the Minority Scholars become tutors to those 9th and 10th graders. The Minority Scholars Program has grown. It's now in every single high school, and is now going to middle schools. So, now about half the middle schools in Montgomery County public schools have the program. And some of the high schoolers that can drive, for example, go down to the middle schools and they serve as mentors and they serve as tutors. And they say, look, like, maybe if you take these classes, you'll be better prepared to take this AP class, and maybe you'll want to join this and that club.
BALLÓNSo, then, as Kimberly was saying, it doesn't make two schools in Walter Johnson High School. It makes one Walter Johnson High School with minority and majority students, alike.
NNAMDIOther members of your family, including your mother, your brother, went through Montgomery County public schools, also. How did their experiences differ from yours?
BALLÓNI believe when -- both my cousins, actually, and my brother all went to Walter Johnson High School. And when they talk about it they definitely talk about a different culture that existed in that school. I believe the program has been able to change the culture of minorities in the school, where it's no longer cool to skip class. It's no longer cool to act out or be uninterested in the classrooms, and it's now cool to look, look at this grade, look at this AP class I'm taking. Look at these schools that I'm getting accepted to. That's now become cool, and it's become cool to look up to these students that want to achieve and want to close the opportunity and achievement gap.
NNAMDIFrazier O'Leary, when you first started teaching at Cardozo High School back in 1977, it was not very diverse. What were the demographics then, and what were they like by the time you retired from teaching in 2017, 40 years later?
O'LEARYIt was about 99.9 percent African American in 1977. We may have had a couple of students who were not African American. When I retired in 2017, Cardozo was a majority Latino -- not heavily, maybe 51 to 49, maybe 50-50 of Latino students. We also had students from other countries. We had -- I think there were like 26 different countries in the world represented at Cardozo. And we had a small smattering of Caucasian students.
NNAMDIWhen people talk about diversity in classrooms, what do you think people are imagining?
O'LEARYI think they're imagining this rainbow of students in a classroom. At Cardozo, my definition of diversity in the classroom was having the African American, Latino students, students from all different countries and the special ed students in my AP classes. My last year, we had AP for all of the students. We have an international academy at Cardozo that encompasses about 300 students, so that those students weren't in the AP literature class, but I offered AP literature to all of the seniors that year. And it was my best teaching experience in my 47 years.
NNAMDIWhy did you decide to do that?
O'LEARYWell, I've always been an advocate that students should be able to take advanced courses. And AP was a restricted course, a lot of the times. People looked at that my student, my child can't get in the AP class because he doesn't have a grade point average. I've never felt that way. I always made it inclusive, and anybody that wanted to take my class or anybody that I pulled out of the hallway into the classroom because they could read or write -- if a student could write well, then I always recruited students into the AP class.
NNAMDIWell, you've been doing a good job someplace, because I happen to live in Ward 4, and when I saw your name on the ballot, I didn't think you had much of a chance of winning. And then you blew it out. You blew everybody (laugh) out of the race and became the member of the DC Board of Education representing Ward 4, so congratulations on that.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on classroom diversity. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking classroom diversity with Kimberly Martin, the principal at Wilson High School in DC. Frazier O'Leary is a former English teacher at Cardozo High School. He's now a member of DC's Board of Education, representing Ward 4. Nico Ballón is an alumnus of the Minority Scholars Program at Walter Johnson High School and a current junior at American University. Here is Lindsey in Fairfax, Virginia. Lindsey, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LINDSEYHi. Thank you so much for taking my call. I'm calling on behalf of -- as a parent with a student with disabilities, and was very excited to hear the gentleman speak about opening up his AP class to students with disabilities. We seem to have a struggle here in Fairfax having that opportunity for students to take those classes. So, I'm wondering if he can give some pointers on what we can do as parents to advocate for our children, getting the support that they need so that they can be included in that environment. Thank you.
NNAMDIYou should know that putting all students in an AP-level course, no matter their previous academic background, was seen at the time as, well, revolutionary. The Washington Post reported that the move astonished educators. Why was it surprising to your colleagues, and how would you respond to Lindsey to have the same kind of thing happen in Fairfax County?
O'LEARYI would just use Lee Alderman as an example. In 1970, Lee Alderman -- 1990, I'm sorry. In 1990, Lee Alderman was placed in my AP language class. And I didn't know why he had been. He had scored the highest scores on the PSAT, verbal and math, but he was a special ed student. He was autistic. And long story short, after we all worked together, the students in my class -- he was in the language class, and then he was in the literature class the next year -- Lee Alderman graduated as the Valedictorian at Cardozo High School in 2001. He was the first special education student who was a Valedictorian in the whole metropolitan area.
O'LEARYAnd that beside -- if I had mentioned that my last year of teaching AP was a highlight, well, Lee's graduation was really the highlight of my career. And it really taught me more than it did him as far as allowing students who are labeled with disabilities or labeled because of their grade point averages, or whatever. They should be given a chance.
NNAMDIThat's the example you can use in Fairfax, Lindsey. If you want Frazier O'Leary's phone number, we can (laugh) get it for you...
NNAMDI...if you call at a different date. Does Cardozo still offer only AP-level English for seniors?
O'LEARYNo, they don't. They have one class of AP.
NNAMDIOne wonders why. Did you receive, either of you, Kimberly or Frazier, any kind of pushback from parents or other educators when you tried to put all students in honors or AP classes? What did you do to prepare the school community for that change in curriculum?
MARTINWe spent a full year to make sure that we didn't have the kind of negative pushback that you're alluding to. I was prepared for it. We created an FAQ that we put on our website. I had multiple parent meetings, and I had the support of the Diversity Taskforce, which I founded specifically to help accomplish some of the goals of honors for all and other goals related to diversity and inclusion. But, surprisingly, we didn't have a lot of negative pushback.
MARTINParents were open arms. I mean, they believed in the curriculum that we were creating. As I mentioned, we spent a whole summer making sure that the curriculum was robust and rigorous, and that students were going to have an authentically honors experience, but that we also had supports for students who had special needs.
NNAMDIHere now is Carl in Gainesville, Virginia. Carl, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CARLHow are you doing, Kojo? I like your show.
CARLI have a situation here, just taking different perspectives on what you're talking about, is that my mother was teaching practical nursing in a school. And they had to take in a certain percentage of minority people. And then they didn't have the background or the educational experience to be able to actually absorb and perform the job of a nurse. And my mother felt strongly against this, because then her students would be put in a hospital and dealing with patients in a life-and-death situation. And some of these people, she felt, were not capable, and should not have been in a nursing program.
NNAMDIWell, how do you -- how did your mother respond to that?
CARLShe had to do what the school told her to do. It's just that she was a teacher, and she was trying to assist these people, provide them, you know, with as much extra attention as she could. But, I mean, you're in your job. When you're in your job, you know, we all do, to a certain degree, what we have to do, or we get another job.
NNAMDIWell, I'll put this to our educators.
CARL(overlapping) Again, this is not the whole class. You have to understand that, too, but I'm saying having the guidelines for qualification and...
NNAMDIWell, how did they get into the class in the first place?
CARLThey set up programs, educational programs for the disadvantaged.
NNAMDIWell, Kimberly, aren't those programs supposed to prepare people to participate in these kinds of classes?
MARTINThat's absolutely right. And I think the difference between what the caller is explaining and what I'm saying is -- that's why we started in 9th grade. We didn't push students into AP class in 11th or 12th grade without making sure that they had the appropriate preparation in 9th and 10th grade. And fundamentally, the teachers are the ones who are really carrying this forward, because they have the fundamental belief that all students can learn.
NNAMDIThis one for you, Nico Ballón. We got a Tweet from Amanda. Unfortunately, it takes a commitment from the students themselves. The administrators have done all they could. The kids are not doing a very good job on diversity. How much of school diversity is the responsibility of students, and how much of it is the responsibility of educators and administrators?
BALLÓNYeah, of course. I just want to touch real quick on something that was said before from the caller, saying that perhaps quotas on hiring isn't the solution. And I have to agree, but I think that says a lot about how we see teachers and educators and how we value them as a society and how much they are paid. Because, right now, a report came out that about 50 percent of new teachers within the first five years leave the profession. So, I believe that has to change. We have to incentivize people to become educators. We have to pay our teachers enough so people want to become educators. And once that foundation is set, then there's going to be a greater field of educators that we can choose from to perhaps have those hires.
BALLÓNSo, I believe that shows that problem on two levels, first of minority hires, but in general, how much we value educators in society and how much people want to become educators. And to the second point, how much of the responsibility comes to the students. I believe it's both, but if the responsibility is to come from the students, I believe they have to have power in order to create that change. One of the magics of the Minority Scholars Program is that it's student-led and it's student-driven. The students are the ones...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Now, hold on a second, because Sharika Wright in Montgomery County apparently wants to talk about the program. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
THERESA WRIGHTYeah, Theresa Wright.
NNAMDIGo right ahead. Theresa Wright, go right ahead, please.
WRIGHTWell, I have the pleasure of knowing about the Minority Scholars Program. I just retired from Montgomery County Public Schools, 40 years, but 20 years I worked with the parents. And I was very happy to work with the Minority Scholars Program (unintelligible) high school, but we included the parents. My job was to include the parents. What that young man says about the Minority Scholars is driven by the kids is great. But we also have to include the parents, because many of the parents are immigrants or they don't know how the school system works or how to apply for the university. So, it's great that they could participate with the children in this wonderful program.
NNAMDIAnd you should know that Nico is still involved with the Minority Scholars Program. What challenges do you think programs like this have, and how can it be improved?
BALLÓNI believe that is something that is now being tackled. And that is a problem, because so many times, these immigrant parents, they work multiple jobs a day. So many times, they're not home when their children come home from school. So, not only does that become a problem when it comes to maybe helping with homework or helping with responsibility or putting guidelines, but that also then comes, when do these parents find out about when the SATs are? When do these parents find out about when the ACTs are, and how do these parents become involved in the students' lives?
BALLÓNSo, I thank you, Theresa Wright. I believe we've actually met before, and I thank you for all your work that you have done connecting the parents of particularly immigrant children into the schools, because that is key. And that is a problem that the Minority Scholars Program faces, because we need support. I believe one of the biggest issues is that there's no position, for example, of the, like, Minority Scholars Program director that can particularly maybe be in the central office of Montgomery County Public Schools that can head the program and have the time and responsibility to direct the program in many different ways.
NNAMDINico Ballón is now a junior at American University, majoring in political science. Thank you for joining us.
BALLÓNThank you for having me.
NNAMDIFrazier O'Leary is a former English teacher at Cardozo High School and a member of DC's Board of Education, representing Ward 4. Frazier O'Leary, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd Kimberly Martin is the principal at Wilson High School in DC. Kimberly Martin, thank you for joining us.
MARTINMy pleasure. Thank you.
NNAMDIToday's conversation on classroom diversity was produced by Ruth Tam. Our update on Maryland's End-of-Life Option Act was produced by Monna Kashfi. Today's show on classroom diversity was a preview of tomorrow's Road Show on diversity issues facing our schools today. You can catch up on all our other previews by clicking on today's show page at KojoShow.org. Coming up tomorrow, we'll look at the local history of the Underground Railroad and the lesser-known figures that helped run it in the 19th century. Plus, we explore racist housing policies from our past, and look at how they may still affect residents in our region. That all starts tomorrow at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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