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Michigan schools amp up college prep, ‘mixed-ability’ classrooms in name of student 'equity'

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Chevonne Riley knows her son's current study habits are not strong enough to support him in honors classes, but they could be soon.

Riley enrolled her seventh-grade son into a college-readiness program at Ferndale Middle School called AVID that is designed to narrow achievement gaps and increase student diversity in higher-level coursework.

"From what I understand about AVID, it will also give my son the extra push he needs in school to advance," Riley said. "He seems a bit nonchalant when it comes to school and learning, but I know he is capable of so much more."

Ferndale Middle School student Janay Cunningham, left, of Warren, beats classmate Jada Pearson at rock-paper-scissors during an AVID elective class, which is designed to narrow achievement gaps.

Courses such as AVID are a step several Michigan school districts are taking to build equity in education. Others are taking different paths, such as eliminating honors courses in favor of "mixed-ability" classrooms, that school leaders hope will encourage more girls to get into math and science fields.  

These efforts come as educators say professional development, course materials reviews and resources reallocation are being used to create programs that serve a broader range of students amid a national debate of equality in education.

In the Ferndale School District, educators are using a system that teaches students “flying under the radar”— typically those in the middle-achievement bubble — study and organization skills and provides them academic support to prepare them for upper-level courses, including honors and Advanced Placement classes.

Seventh-grade AVID teacher Elaine Zold, left, splits her students into two teams as they play the team-building game, Rock, Paper, Scissors at Ferndale Middle School.

The Grosse Pointe Public School System, meanwhile, has eliminated seventh-grade honors science and social studies courses as the district adopts a more inquiry-based curriculum to meet state standards that administrators and teachers also hope will attract more girls to science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Maureen Bur, Grosse Pointe's secondary instruction director, said the district is always looking for equity, not just in race and ethnicity, but in learning styles and for boys and girls.

"Middle school is a really challenging time for students," Bur said. "We're always looking for equity of making sure all of the students have the tools socially, emotionally, academically to succeed."

New Ferndale program

Ferndale superintendent Dania Bazzi said the Oakland County district asked how it can ensure all of its students have access to AP and honors courses. The answer this school year was the AVID system, which stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination.

"The representation for minority students is lower than non-minority students in AP and honors," Bazzi said. "The representation of higher-income students is much higher than low-income students. There’s a gap. We would like to increase the participation of those who not always get those opportunities. We want all students to have access to ensure they will be successful in college.”

AVID was the idea of Mary Catherine Swanson, a middle school teacher in San Diego in 1980, who, following desegregation, wanted to provide the college-readiness tools to all of her students, many whose parents didn’t go to college.

“These students might not have been given an opportunity to take advanced courses just because they haven’t been in that environment, not because they didn’t have the ability,” said Rachel Henley, Midwest region state director of AVID. "We're empowering the teachers through professional learning to support all students."

AVID operates in more than 7,000 schools in 47 states in the United States, Canada and Australia. Six districts in Michigan use it: Dearborn, East Lansing, Ferndale, Grosse Pointe, Michigan Virtual Charter Academy and Utica Public Schools.

Michael Young, 12, of Ferndale, raises his arms as he mimics the AVID logo in a seventh grade class in Ferndale Middle School.  AVID stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination.

Of low-income, first-generation college students who took an AVID course, 42% graduate with a four-year degree in six years, according to the nonprofit, compared to 11% of their low-income, first-generation peers who did not take an AVID course. In 2018, 64% of AVID students were low-income, half were Hispanic and 15% were black.

At Ferndale Middle School, 27 seventh-graders and 22 eighth-graders are taking AVID as an elective. 

"Teachers can say, 'That student has potential,'" said Jackie Hart, Ferndale's school board president, of the AVID program. "It's a chance to grab them and push them to the next level and not let them falter and go down a different path."

Mixing classes

Leaders in Grosse Pointe say "mixed-ability" classrooms in science and social studies provide the rigor found in its honors classes while also challenging students who were in non-honors courses.

Seventh-grade students are clustered based on abilities in these classrooms. Depending on how the change goes, mixed-ability classrooms could be extended to the eighth grade next year. Sixth-grade classes traditionally are mixed-ability.

The district’s school board in May approved the use of a new science curriculum developed by Michigan Technological University called Mi-STAR to align with the next-generation standards the state of Michigan adopted in 2015.

Chris Geerer, science department chair at Parcells Middle School, was among the teachers who helped develop the curriculum and has piloted its units in her classroom for the past three years. 

During the pilots, Geerer provided a pre-test and post-test to her students. The honors students scored up to 40% of the answers correctly before the unit, and the students in her remedial classes scored around 10%. After the unit, there was a slight difference on average between the two groups, with honors students scoring 80% to their peers’ approximately 76%.

Geerer added if students were taught according to the new science standards since kindergarten, she would expect scores to be even higher.

“I got chills,” she said. “It’s closing the gap. We aren’t skimming the very best students for science, and then everyone else struggles and quits. We make science accessible to everyone, developing their sense of confidence that ‘I can do it.’ Kids are engaged, and behavior problems aren’t as big of a deal.”

Grosse Pointe Superintendent Gary Niehaus said the elimination of honors in science and social studies was not made directly in an effort to increase classroom racial diversity, though it likely will.

Niehaus did say he hopes the new inquiry-based curriculum will attract girls to science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

At Parcells, black students account for 36% of the student population, though they make up about 10% of the students enrolled in honors classes, Principal Daniel Hartley said. AVID, now in its fourth year at Parcells, might have increased that number to 20%, he said. All of Parcells’ AVID students have enrolled in at least one honors middle school course.

Bur said the district is always looking for equity, not just in race and ethnicity, but in learning styles and for boys and girls, as well.

"Middle school is a really challenging time for students," she said. "We're always looking for equity of making sure all of the students have the tools socially, emotionally, academically to succeed."

Paul Liabenow, executive director of the Michigan Elementary & Middle School Principals Association, said there is a concerted effort statewide to include more students in honors-level courses, primarily in high school.

The retired Cadillac school superintendent said districts also have been moving away from valedictorian and salutatorian titles so students are more willing to take challenging courses.

"And see that learning is more important than GPA," Liabenow said.

Debate on equity

Education experts say programs that separate students into tracks aren't intended to racially segregate them, but education statistics show that Advanced Placement tests are overwhelmingly taken by white high school students, including in Michigan.

A look at Michigan data from the nonprofit College Board shows minority students make up a smaller portion of AP test-takers in high school.

Of the 110,354 AP tests taken by Michigan students in 2018, 72% of test-takers were white while less than 5% were black and about 6% were Hispanic. Asian students were 11% of test-takers.

The steps taken in Michigan come during a national discussion of inequalities in education, reinvigorated by as New York education officials debate a controversial recommendation to eliminate some talented and gifted schools in New York City that separate high-achieving students from their peers.

Some of these NYC gifted schools are 75% Asian and white, while a majority of the district’s students are black and Hispanic. New York is the country’s largest school district, and others could follow if Mayor Bill de Blasio chooses to implement the recommendations.

David Lubinski, a psychology professor at Vanderbilt University and co-director of the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, does not support the New York panel's recommendation. 

Lubinski said it is important for educators to focus on the needs of all students, including those who are gifted or in higher level programs, because different students need different opportunities.

"Intellectual precocity and talent in different forms ... cuts across all demographic and socioeconomic levels," Lubinski said. "What is important is to focus on the needs of individual kids. What you do when you eliminate gifted programs is you hurt the kids the most who are in economically challenged homes."

Parents react to changes

Parents in the Grosse Pointe school district had mixed reactions to the elimination of the honors courses. 

Stephanie Listman has two children who had honors courses in middle school in past years and has a new middle schooler who wants to take as many honors classes as he can.

"I don’t have an issue with them getting rid of honors classes. I think it should be reserved for high school only," Listman said. "Clustering based on ability is OK. I would do a mixed-ability group they are still learning the material sometimes it can get more interesting that way."

Parent Jen Evans said the removal of honors courses in two subjects and the goal of engaging more female students in STEM education is a path she supports.

"I don’t think what you did in seventh-grade science or social studies is going to get you into a particular college. Maybe for people who this is their first time in middle school, it’s a problem," Evans said. "Any way we can get women the exposure to things that would lead them to STEM fields is great."