On paper, Evanston Township High School looks like
a model of integration, with a racial mix that society has strived to achieve
But inside the classrooms and lunchrooms
of the North Shore school, it becomes clear that getting diverse races in
the same building is only a first step toward unity and uniformly high achievement.
Despite concerted efforts by Evanston school officials, students of different
races find themselves in different classes. They gravitate toward separate
sports teams and clubs. They attend rival dances and even use different doors
as they stream out of school for lunch.
"We all go to the same school, but that is pretty much it," said sophomore
Paul Schroeder, who plays on the school's majority-white water polo team.
Fifty years after the U.S. Supreme Court forbade government-sanctioned
school segregation, racially diverse schools like Evanston--48 percent white,
39 percent African-American and 9 percent Latino this year--still are rare.
These schools are in the vanguard of a new battle: Getting students of different
races to interact more, and working to understand and address why minorities
tend to lag behind their white peers.
There are powerful social and cultural forces undermining efforts to integrate.
Teenagers, trying to fit in at the 3,100-student school, are drawn to students
who look and sound the same. Growing up in distinct cultures, they have different
academic expectations and separate interests outside of class.
Evanston students have thought hard about race, and they openly and honestly
regret that the school does not live up to ideal visions of integration.
They also are quick to point to their school's diversity as a leg up when
comparing themselves to nearly all-white rival New Trier Township High School
in Winnetka, an experience that experts agree gives them an advantage.
"In any comparative sense, you will be better off going to Evanston," said
education and social policy professor Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil
Rights Project at Harvard University. "You don't have to be best friends
[with people of other races], but your horizons get broadened, you get new
ideas, you learn how to act in different settings."
Most of the settings at Evanston remain divided, however, including the
Advanced Placement and honors classes are overwhelmingly white, while remedial
classes--for freshmen and sophomores reading and writing below grade level--are
disproportionately African-American and Latino.
About 15 percent of the classes that black students took last year were
AP and honors, compared with 51 percent of the classes for white students.
"You can look in a room and know if it is an honors or regular class by
the color of the students' skin," said senior Nicole Summers, who is white
and said there are five minority students in her four AP classes. "It's great
that we are in a diverse school, but when you are in class, you don't feel
Some experts say that may not be a bad thing. It's more important, they
say, to place students in classes where they can succeed, and then work to
raise their achievement. Others say minority students would perform better
if the classes were not divided by ability.
Test scores and placement
There are several factors behind the classroom gap, including differences
in test scores when students get to high school. On a national test they
took last school year, this year's white freshmen scored, on average, 19.5
out of 25, while Latino students scored 14.7 and African-American students
Students are put in classes based on these scores and teacher recommendations.
Parents can request that their children be moved to another level, but most
parents who do that are white, Supt. Allan Alson said.
Teacher Venessa Woods said that although "people don't want to hear it,"
cultural and educational differences mean that some minority parents aren't
as involved in their children's education or don't know how to work the bureaucracy
to request the best teachers or top classes.
Eighty-nine percent of white students at Evanston have at least one parent
with four or more years of college education, compared with 45 percent of
black students and 24 percent of Latino students, according to a Harvard
"In some of our students-of-color homes, they don't have the homework table,
they don't see degrees on the wall from mom and dad," said Woods, who runs
a program to get more African-American and Latino students in high-level
classes. "We need to change the way they think about themselves as students.
They need to see themselves as learners."
The Harvard survey also found that a smaller percentage of black students
said their teachers demand they work hard.
"It's true that teachers don't expect as much from black kids as white
kids," said Harvard lecturer Ronald Ferguson, who studies the achievement
gap at multiracial suburban schools. He thinks Evanston's black and Latino
students are likely enrolled in appropriate classes because they are not
as well prepared for the harder courses.
Fear of failure and not fitting in also drives some minority students to
choose lower-level classes.
"Many minorities can be in honors classes, but they choose not to be. We
are trying to figure that out because they can do the work," said senior
Patrice Miller, 18, a member of the school's Minority Student Achievement
Network. "They don't have anybody pushing them or motivating them to take
the classes--not their parents or their counselors or other teachers."
That doesn't mean students like the situation. In teacher Sheila Skweres'
remedial biology class, all 17 students are African-American or Latino.
"The kids, point-blank, have asked me where the white kids are. The kids
notice it and that's a problem," Skweres said.
Little mixing at lunch
Without the classroom contact, students say they are less likely to socialize
In the school's junior/senior cafeteria--one of four lunchrooms in the
school--black students generally sit on one side, white students on the other.
Among those who leave campus, black students often go out the front doors
and walk along Dodge Avenue to fast-food restaurants or their homes. White
students overwhelmingly leave through the back doors to the parking lot and
drive to lunch.
Athletics and extra-curricular activities are divided by race, too. The
cheerleading squad and boys' basketball teams are nearly all African-American,
for example, while the swim teams are almost all white. Nearly all music,
theater and visual arts are dominated by white students.
There are exceptions: student council, the boys football and wrestling
teams, the girls basketball and softball teams, and both track teams are
The racial divide also is evident at two non-school-sponsored dances--Cotillion
and Ebony Ball. Cotillion is a long-standing tradition, in which 20 upper-classmen
paid about $500 this year to sit on the Cotillion board, a privilege that
allows them to invite other students to a winter dance. Historically, the
dance was open only to white students, but board members have worked to make
it more diverse in recent years.
In 1991, in response to that dance, black students started Ebony Ball.
The school's African-American students receive invitations, and other students
can ask to attend. Non-black students can go if they are invited as a date,
though even that has been controversial, said Matthew Hunter, a member of
the Ebony Ball board who invited a white girl this year.
"I got a lot of flak," he said, referring to comments made at a salon while
he got his hair braided for the dance.
Beverly Daniel Tatum, author of "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together
in the Cafeteria?" said students start separating themselves in middle school
as they think about their identity and become more interested in the opposite
"Parents and teachers may start to give signals about who is appropriate
to hang out with," said Tatum, president of Spelman College in Atlanta.
Students generally dismiss the segregation in the cafeterias, saying they
simply are more comfortable hanging out with peers of the same race who may
have similar interests.
"Because high school is so big, it is hard to find a group right away,"
said sophomore Maya Odim, who sat with all African-American girls last year
and now sits at a mixed-race table. "Since you can't see personalities when
you look at people, race is the first thing you can see."
Sylvia Garduno has a simpler reason for her lunch table choice.
"I sit with Hispanics because they know how to speak Spanish and can understand
me," said Garduno, a junior who sits at a table where conversation sometimes
slips into Spanish.
There are pockets of integration. At one table, two white girls joined
eight African-American girls whom they know from the basketball team.
But the African-American girls at that table agreed there were pressures
to sit with students of the same race. Anika Trujillo, whose mother is black
and father is Latino, wondered aloud about the reaction she would get if
she sat at a table with white students.
"You'll get labeled as one of the black-girls-who-sits-with-a-white-girl
reputation," Trujillo said.
Students said interracial dating is relatively rare, and when it does occur,
it is nearly always a white girl dating a black boy.
"We get upset when it is a black man doing well, with good looks, smart
and a good reputation and he chooses to date a white girl," said senior Samantha
Perhaps the most striking aspect of all these divisions is that Evanston
has been a nationwide leader in trying to overcome such distinctions.
Striving for achievement
In 1999, Alson started the Minority Student Achievement Network, a group
of 21 racially diverse suburban school districts across the country working
to close the achievement gap.
At Evanston Township High School, one week in March was dedicated to minority
achievement, with speakers addressing a schoolwide assembly. A world map
was placed at the school entrance, and students were encouraged to put a
pin in their country of origin to "show our strength in diversity," according
to a school memo.
Homerooms and non-academic classes such as gym and health are intentionally
integrated, and some English, history and biology teachers are mixing honors
and regular students with the aim of getting more minority students in upper-level
Also, two academic support programs have helped minority students get into
There have been some gains in recent years. About 11 percent of students
in AP classes last year were African-American, compared with 7 percent in
2000-01. About 4 percent of AP students were Latino, compared with 2 percent
a few years ago. The percentage of minority students in honors classes has
"I truly believe we have made significant progress," Alson said. But, he
said, "the school has to do a better job with earlier, faster, more pinpointed
interventions for kids who are struggling and for kids who are languishing
in the middle, who need a fire lit and believe they can do it."
Woods, who has taught at Evanston for 19 years, said that "for some strange
reason, students are clinging tightly to stereotypical beliefs of their abilities."
"Now the problem seems to be more of a societal one," she said. "The school
is trying to make a difference, but it's hard to change beliefs."
Even students performing in the musical "Ragtime"--which follows white,
black and immigrant families as they learn to adjust to an increasingly diverse
society in the early 20th Century--found it is hard to change social norms.
It was one of the school's most diverse casts ever, yet when they stopped
to eat pizza for lunch, the black students sat at some tables and the white
students at others. The teens looked at each other, realized the irony and
switched tables. They gradually got to know each other. By the end of their
performances, they ate lunch together on the school lawn and went to cast
parties at each other's homes.
"At the beginning, we were all separate. By the end, we were all working
together," said Latrice Gibson, an African-American lead cast member. "I
compare [the situation at Evanston] to `Ragtime.' We are working on it and
hopefully we can all come together. We are not there yet."
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