As appeared in the February 2005 issue of Educational Leadership
Increasing Diversity in Challenging Classes
A multicultural high school expands opportunities for its diverse student body.
Eileen Gale Kugler and Erin McVadon Albright
Annandale High School opened its doors in 1954 in the still-segregated school system of Fairfax County, Virginia, a burgeoning middle-class suburb of Washington, D.C. In the next few decades, despite the official end of segregation, the school’s student population remained almost exclusively middle-class and white.
But the faces in the halls of Annandale High changed dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s as the area experienced an increasing influx of immigrants. A school redistricting magnified the change. Today, Annandale High’s 2,500 students come from 92 countries, speak more than 45 native languages, and come from a wide range of economic backgrounds. More than one-third of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and many more live close to the poverty line.
The school weathered some tough times as faculty and students struggled to deal with the new diversity. In the early 1990s fights frequently broke out along racial lines, and the school administration realized that the school required more involved, assertive leadership. The schoolwide effort to become a model diverse school began. Parents were welcomed as collaborative partners. As a result of the outreach, many middle-class families chose to remain and contribute to the school’s success rather than flee to predominantly white schools.
Creating a Welcoming School Climate
School leaders decided that their first mission would be to build a school climate where every student felt valued. All students participated in a series of small-group dialogues focused on how to show respect even when you don’t agree with someone, how students from different cultures may look at such issues as dating, and how to handle adolescent problems that are compounded by cultural differences. The school strengthened its student peer mediation program to head off potential problems and to teach students how to disagree without resorting to violence. Faculty members explored their own attitudes toward the new ethnic groups present in their classrooms, looking at ways in which their own backgrounds might affect their expectations of students. Multicultural parent groups also met to discuss values and concerns about raising teens that cross cultures. These talks built bonds among community members and between the school and students’ homes.
In 1998, principal Donald Clausen created an academic task force of administrators, guidance counselors, teachers, parents, and community members. The work of this task force has endured and is now an integral part of the school, even under a new principal, Rodney Manuel. The task force still meets to address the needs of diverse learners. One of the group’s recommendations was bringing International Baccalaureate (IB), a program for high-achieving 11th and 12th graders, to the school. Established in 1968 in Geneva, Switzerland, IB operates today in nearly 1,400 schools in 115 countries, including 426 U.S. high schools.
The task force believed that International Baccalaureate offerings would add opportunities that the existing advanced placement courses did not provide. Students could participate in a rigorous integrated IB diploma program or earn an IB certificate in a particular subject. The IB program was also deemed a good fit for the diverse school because it uses curriculum and assessments that are less culturally biased than those of U.S.-based programs. Because it is used in so many different cultures, IB emphasizes transparent assessments that eliminate subtle norms and expectations that may exclude students not raised in the majority culture. Criterion-referenced assessments, the use of specific rubrics, and the “teacher as coach” model level the playing field in IB classes.
The IB program also provides essential support for diverse students. An IB coordinator on the faculty advocates for students, and IB students take many of their classes together, creating a powerful academic and social support network.
Broadening the IB Program
The task force committed itself to offering IB classes to as many students as possible, rejecting the typical IB model that runs a diploma-only program as a school-within-a-school. In the late 1990s, the school had already achieved greater minority enrollment in high-level classes because of a change in policy–switching from the “gifted and talented” model that admitted students on the basis of their performance on standardized tests to an “honors” approach that focused on students’ motivation and performance in class. In 1995, the Gifted and Talented English 9 class of 18 students included only one African American student; no Latino students had even applied. Today, more than 100 students, proportionately representing the diverse student population, participate in the English 9 Honors program.
The Annandale High administration built on the foundation of its inclusive honors program to create an inclusive IB program for juniors and seniors. The school went against conventional wisdom by starting its program big. To get as many students as possible involved in the program, the school offers a full range of IB classes in mathematics, science, English, history, and four foreign languages.
Counselors and teachers at Annandale High personally encourage every motivated student they encounter to take one or more IB classes. Teachers seek out bright students who may not even know their own capabilities. “I look for work ethic,” says Kathlyn Berry, an 11th grade history teacher, adding that
I always ask kids what advanced classes they are taking and encourage them to take at least one. I let them know they will have to work hard, and may even get a C, but they will develop their writing and analytical skills and will see the advantage when they go to college.
To further broaden access to the IB program, the school offers several IB classes for students not yet proficient in English. For example, Spanish A2 for Fluent Speakers has attracted native Spanish speakers who want to study Spanish literature and culture in an academic setting, U.S.-born students who have lived in Spanish-speaking countries, and graduates of a local Spanish immersion program.
For many Latino students, IB Spanish A2 is the gateway to other rigorous classes. Nelson, an immigrant from Bolivia, felt little connection to school and assumed he would not finish high school, until a teacher encouraged him to take Spanish A2. The class helped him explore in an academic setting issues that interested him without being restrained by limitations in English. Nelson became intrigued with ethical issues in genetics, and he is now focusing on biology and planning to attend college.
The IB offerings at Annandale also include the arts, such as classes in music theory and drama. In IB Art, students develop a theme-based project, and many students use their native cultures as a foundation. One student who was born in Colombia researched imagery from pre-Columbian art; a boy who had lived in Sudan and Yemen chose the theme of human suffering. The IB assessment involves students giving talks about their work, so students gain insight into other histories and cultures as well as refine their oral presentation skills.
In addition to reaching out to get more students to enroll in IB classes, Annandale faculty and administrators provide ongoing, multifaceted support to help each IB student succeed in the program. The IB coordinator works with students and parents on individual concerns, such as the student feeling overwhelmed by work or facing scheduling conflicts. Guidance counselors ensure that each student involved with IB is placed appropriately and has what he or she needs to succeed. Teachers are considered “coaches” for student success. Administrators work to break down barriers that might pose problems for some families, such as complicated application procedures.
The school makes an effort to include any potentially successful student in IB courses. Faculty members keep mindful of the line where encouragement ends and unreasonable pressure begins. If a student wants to drop a class, has she simply not yet adjusted to the rigor of the teacher, or is the class truly too challenging? If a student is feeling overwhelmed, should he be taking two IB classes instead of three? If so, which one should be dropped? A student who wants to drop an IB course meets with his or her teacher, parent, IB coordinator, guidance counselor, and the assistant principal to work out the problem. Although time-consuming and intensive, this commitment to each student as an individual is at the crux of the program’s success.
The Payoff: Authentic Diversity
Because of these efforts, significantly more minority students now take the most rigorous classes at Annandale High. In this school in which most students come from minority cultures, more than half of the students in every grade take advanced courses. African American students’ participation in 11th and 12th grade IB classes has doubled in the last three years (to 50 students), and Latino students’ participation has tripled (to 51 students). Eighteen percent of students in IB classes qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
Of the 24 students who enrolled as IB diploma candidates in 2004, 38 percent do not speak English as their first language, 24 percent were born outside the United States, 16 percent are African American, and 4 percent are Latino. We hope that more African American and Latino students will seek the IB diploma as they experience success in individual IB classes.
Individual stories reflecting the diverse backgrounds and experiences of Annandale’s IB students bring these statistics to life. Inga is an IB diploma candidate who was born in Somalia. She first began taking rigorous classes when her 7th grade math teacher recommended her for algebra. Inga kept increasing her top-level classes, and in 11th grade she decided to aim for the IB diploma. She applied herself in IB classes in English, history, art, Spanish, math, and biology and took an intensive seminar course called Theory of Knowledge. Inga believes that her teachers have high expectations for her, and she has been accepted at Dartmouth College, Duke University, and the University of Virginia. Her extended essay, a requirement for the IB diploma, is an analysis of the potential health-related repercussions of telecommuting.
Another IB diploma candidate is Marti, an African American who credits as key to her success her elementary school’s recognition of her ability and her subsequent placement in a pullout program. Marti believes that Annandale provided her with a “blessing” by not letting her easily drop pre-IB and IB classes, but giving her support and talking to her parents. Marti has been accepted at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, Penn State University, and St. John’s University, which she will attend on a scholarship for academic excellence.
Cory, an African American who is taking several IB classes, was first encouraged to go down that path by his middle school teachers. The open enrollment procedure allowed Cory to take an IB math class, which should prepare him to do well in college classes. He believes his biggest challenge is balancing schoolwork and sports, which he accomplishes with the support of his coaches. Cory says that his culture is valued in class and that neither his peers nor his teachers have ever expected him to give up his identity to be part of IB.
College Readiness for All
The IB program is just one facet of a school culture at Annandale High that aims to increase opportunities for all students. Annandale guidance counselors and teachers work with minority students from their first day at the school to help them prepare for and pursue college. Faculty reach out to all those they teach–not only students already achieving well but also students who hint at more promise than their academic records reflect–encouraging them to participate in high-level courses or programs that prime students for college. For example, the Student Achievement Model (SAM), a college preparatory program for academically capable students who have not yet been successful, teams a counselor with core teachers and includes Saturday academic boot camps, college trips, and intensive work with individuals and their parents.
Recognizing that early preparation of students is crucial, Annandale High and its two feeder middle schools have been working closely to improve vertical alignment of their curriculums. They are applying for authorization to offer the IB Middle Years Program–currently piloted for all 6th and 7th graders in the two feeder middle schools–to all students in grades 6-10.
Parent support is a key element in increasing student achievement throughout the school. Such mainstream organizations as the Parent Teacher Student Association have worked to encourage all parents to focus beyond their own child to the success of every student. Minority parents are actively involved in leadership, and a new Hispanic Parents Council is working to connect more Hispanic parents with the school. Parents are involved in everything from policy reform at the school and district levels to targeted fund-raising. When a shrinking budget led the Fairfax County School Board to eliminate funding for IB tests, forcing most students to pay their own testing fees, the Annandale parents raised enough money to cover the testing fee of every student at Annandale for several years. They then intensively lobbied the school board until it reinstated the funding.
We are proud of our achievements, but the entire school community realizes that we still face barriers to developing effective strategies for raising achievement for all students. One difficulty is analyzing student data meaningfully because students with very different cultures and experiences are arbitrarily grouped together in U.S. Census Bureau categories. For example, the “white” category mixes together U.S.-born white students and immigrants recently arrived from the Middle East, a substantial part of the school population.
Annandale High School opened in the fall of 1954, a few months after the Brown v. Board of Education decision was handed down. Today, it truly represents the promise of that decision: a vibrant, multicultural school whose diversity is reflected in its most rigorous classes.
© 2005 Eileen Gale Kugler and Erin McVadon Albright
Eileen Gale Kugler (703-644-3039; ekugler@KuglerCom.com) is a speaker and consultant on building diverse schools. She is the author of Debunking the Middle-Class Myth: Why Diverse Schools Are Good for All Kids (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002).
Erin McVadon Albright is the coordinator for the International Baccalaureate program at Annandale High School; 703-642-4254; Erin.Albright@fcps.edu.