I first learned of Jordan Fields, an African American student at a New Jersey high school, in 2014 when she was struggling to get into the best math classes so she could become an engineer.
Despite excellent middle school grades and scores, she had to fight to get into ninth-grade geometry. When she needed help in Algebra 2 the next year, her teacher instead allegedly told her parents "she just doesn't seem to get it" and suggested she choose a less demanding career.
That apparent reluctance to support minority students led to the creation of the Black Parents Workshop to make changes in the relatively affluent South Orange and Maplewood school district. The school board was unfortunately not cooperative. It fired an independent consultant hired to recommend how to comply with a federal civil rights agreement, and instead gave the job to a district staffer. The data it eventually released showed racial disparities in some instances as bad as before.
Fields managed to take two Advanced Placement courses, calculus and English, despite the warning that she was in over her head. She is now a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh, but her high school is still stuck with biased assumptions about student potential.
Despite promises to provide more challenges, not everyone at Fields's alma mater, Columbia High, seems to understand what that means. The school lets students and their families decide whether to take demanding courses, unlike more successful schools that try to persuade timid students with potential to try something harder. Students struggling early in AP can drop to a lower course, something AP teachers I know consider a bad idea.
District spokeswoman Suzanne Turner said the district "is actively working to address the underlying issues which have previously contributed to disparate placements and outcomes for students." The district expressed the same optimism to me three years ago, and I don't see much improvement compared with similar schools.
"Since the majority of African American students are stuck in Level 3 classes," said Walter Fields, a journalist who specializes in civil rights and is Jordan Fields's father, "they are hesitant to enroll in an AP course, nor are they encouraged."
Most high schools in the Washington area removed those barriers two decades ago. But they are an exception. Few districts have parent groups like the Black Parents Workshop with the insight and will to overcome ingrained low expectations.
Compare Columbia High with James Hubert Blake High School in Montgomery County, Md. Columbia has about 1,850 students, 45 percent of them black. Blake has about 1,600 students, 41 percent of them black. At Columbia, 21 percent of the students are from low-income families. At Blake, the portion is 35 percent.
Yet on The Washington Post's 2017 America's Most Challenging High Schools list, Blake is far ahead of Columbia. It has an AP-tests-to-graduating-seniors ratio of 2.833 (ranked 805 out of 22,000 U.S. schools). Columbia's ratio is 1.882 (ranked 1,502). Blake's percentage of seniors with passing grades on AP tests is also higher.
The Black Parents Workshop points to signs of racial insensitivity. When a school dance group performed to Billie Holiday's song about lynching, "Strange Fruit," a group of white teachers complained that it made them feel unsafe in the auditorium. Last month, the only African American student in an honors class was falsely accused by his teacher of being on drugs — leading to a search of his body and locker — after he laughed with other students about his correct answers to several questions, the parents group says.
The Black Parents Workshop protested when one African American student, despite his teacher's and his counselor's support, was told he couldn't take an honors history class. They did the same when another African American student was barred from taking honors geometry.
Interim superintendent Thomas Ficarra overruled both decisions. But seeing few improvements, the parent group has announced it will sue the district in state court for violating state and federal civil rights laws.
Those in charge at Columbia High should visit Blake High. It is worth the three-hour drive to see good examples of what students from all backgrounds can do when the entire staff believes in them.