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Ramble Issue No. 7: Northfield HS: The School Reform that Needs our Attention and Support

By Dr. Philip Bernhardt

The recent opening of Northfield High School (NHS) in Denver is a significant event that anyone committed to educating children and improving schools needs to be paying close attention to. Why pay attention? First, Northfield HS has de-tracked its academic programming; all students participate in the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma pathway. I do not believe there is another high school in Colorado committed to this vision. While this model has substantial merit, it has raised a number of concerns among some parents and community members. Second, the establishment of this school provides an opportunity to educate those who do not believe de-tracking has value or do not believe it can be successful. Third, Northfield’s current student population reflects both the reality and promise of school integration. If we are truly committed to this goal, we must support NHS’s ongoing effort to educate its diverse student body. Unfortunately, recent events at the school have shifted attention away from the importance and promise of the school’s mission and educational commitment to “Excellence for All.” NHS’s programs and structures deserve public attention and discussion. With the establishment of NHS, we have an opportunity to dispel myths about de-tracking, push back on uninformed critique, and encourage honest conversation about how this school can become a national model for how we should be educating children and structuring schools. As a community, we need to have this dialogue. There are three dynamics that deserve consideration.

De-tracking: Northfield HS is committed to providing ALL of its students access to the IB Diploma program. The elimination of academic tracking is a key pillar of the school and one that deserves support. There is a substantial body of research demonstrating the need to dismantle academic tracking to ensure all students, regardless of race, ethnicity, or socio-economic status, have access to academic programs that prepare them for post-secondary education[1]. If people closely examine Northfield’s innovation plan, they will find an intentional effort to support individual student growth, academic achievement, and curricular differentiation. These include, for example, a competency- based learning model that allows students to progress at their own pace without sacrificing rigor or diluting curriculum; a team of advisers dedicated to the academic, social, and emotional well-being of students; and an interdisciplinary approach to teaching that connects and supports student learning across the curriculum. To those who are advocating against or are skeptical of the NHS model, some difficult questions need to be asked and answered. What specific concerns do you have about the NHS curricular model? What is it about this academic approach that you believe cannot succeed? How would you feel if your own child did not have access to the best possible academic preparation? What additional supports can NHS integrate to more effectively support and ensure the success of ALL students? As a community, we need ensure this much-needed academic model gets the advocacy, support, and publicity it needs to succeed.

Surfacing Beliefs about De-tracking: Why does de-tracking always cause such angst and concern among parents? Why do conversations about de-tracking elicit responses that often embody fear, misunderstanding, entitlement, and even downright prejudice? Why does this approach to educating children provoke comments like, “I don’t want my kids in the same classroom as those kids” or “those kids will force the teacher to dumb everything down?” What is it about our societal structures that result in some parents believing their kids are entitled to one form of education while other kids should be relegated to inferior academic opportunities? You can examine the data any way that you want; it tells the same general story [2]– African American and Latino/Latina students are disproportionately underrepresented in advanced-level classes and programs. The establishment of Northfield HS is an opportunity for parents, school leaders, politicians, and even the media to ask hard questions about the motives and attitudes of those individuals and groups who do not believe this academic model can be successful and may attempt to undermine its continued existence. We have an ethical responsibility to educate people on the issues in a way that ensures the school’s future success. Some of the questions that need to be asked include: As parents and educators, what concerns most you about de-tracking? Which students benefit when access to advanced level programs like IB are tightly controlled and limited? How might this lack of access disadvantage certain groups of students? Why do school leaders, teachers, and parents prefer different academic tracks? What beliefs about teaching and learning underlie support for a system that typically leads to within school academic segregation? What is taking place at Northfield HS provides a timely opportunity for engagement in difficult conversations related to equity, academic access, and educational opportunity for ALL students.

Returning to the Promise of Integrated Schools: There is plenty of data to support the fact that schools nationally are more segregated today than they were during the late 1960’s[3]. In fact, during November, Rocky Mountain PBS will be airing a documentary entitled, Standing in the Gap, which examines the well-entrenched patterns of re-segregation in Denver Public Schools. Northfield HS is an example of a school pushing back on widespread school segregation trends. NHS has a fairly equal distribution of Latino/Latina, African American, and white students. This demographic representation was a purposeful act. The founding principal made a concerted effort through the school’s initial recruiting and marketing practices to ensure diversity would emerge. NHS was highly sought after through the school-choice process. This popularity demonstrates that parents and students from all over the Denver metro area are attracted to the school’s academic program as well as its commitment to racial, ethnic, and socio-economic diversity. In an era of segregated schools, both nationally and here in Denver, we need to ask ourselves a complex, but straightforward question: how can we develop and support more diverse schools? To start, definitely need to pay closer attention to the important reforms taking place at Northfield High School.