The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Evanston Township High School (ETHS) in Illinois is taking an innovative approach to education with a bold decision: They’re offering race-separated classes to bridge the persistent academic gap between Black, Latino, and White students. This initiative, more than just a policy move, resonates deeply with the students’ personal journeys. For instance, student Maria Gomez told her school newspaper she found a sense of belonging in the GANAS Algebra 2 class for Latinx students. These stories emphasize the value of “affinity classes.” They show that offering classes separated by race is about more than teaching—it’s crucial for cultural and personal ties.
Nearly 200 students have joined these classes, seeking more than just separation. They’re looking for a nurturing learning environment. Teachers of color lead math and writing courses with the aim of providing a comforting academic space, especially in AP courses. In these courses, minority students often feel underrepresented in integrated classes. ETHS’s initiative reflects a growing trend in education and an understanding of diverse student needs.
This bold move raises questions and garners mixed reactions
Evanston’s initiative, mirroring strategies in cities like Minneapolis, Seattle, San Francisco, and Oakland, navigates complex educational reform and racial integration. While these programs adhere to federal antidiscrimination laws, they spark debate about their alignment with broader educational goals.
The response to ETHS’s classes has been polarized. On one hand, educators and researchers advocate for the program, pointing to studies demonstrating improved outcomes when minority students are taught by teachers of their own race. Some even theorize that students of all races need more Black teachers overall and that schools ought to focus on recruiting more non-White teachers. On the other hand, critics argue that this approach contradicts the principles of the Civil Rights Act by counteracting racial integration. The controversy has extended into the media, with conservative commentators accusing the school of undermining racial harmony and promoting divisive ideologies. Some have harshly criticized the program, saying it shortchanges Black and Latino students and allows “toxic ideologies” to infiltrate school life. These critiques echo larger national conversations about race, education, and equity.
Conversely, the student newspaper at ETHS presents a different narrative, illustrating the classes’ positive impact through stories like that of Omar Pryor, a junior who experienced a profound sense of community in the AXLE English class for Black students. Teachers and students emphasize the importance of these spaces for empowerment and identity affirmation. Pryor’s story, along with others, underscores the complexity of the issue—while some view these classes as a regression in civil rights, others see them as essential for fostering a supportive and inclusive learning environment for minority students.
Overall, the National Education Policy Center views these segregated classes as a temporary measure to address deep-rooted racial inequities. This perspective suggests the need for a broader, more systemic approach to tackling these challenges in the long term.
What does this mean for the future?
ETHS student testimonials showcase a sense of belonging and reduced pressure in same-race classes. One Minneapolis teacher noted, “In our spaces, you don’t have to shed one ounce of yourself because everything about our space is rooted in Blackness.” Yet, the absence of comprehensive data on the program’s academic impact leaves room for ongoing assessment and adaptation. Initiated in 2019, the program’s long-term effectiveness in bridging the achievement gap remains to be seen.
The Evanston initiative, while pioneering, points toward a future where race-specific classes are no longer necessary. This vision aligns with broader educational goals of equity and inclusion. For educators across various contexts, this situation presents an opportunity to reflect on and advocate for teaching practices that acknowledge and address the diverse needs of their student populations. It encourages a proactive stance in adapting curricula and classroom environments to be more inclusive and supportive.
As we look forward, the role of teachers in shaping inclusive and equitable educational spaces becomes increasingly vital. Engaging in continuous professional development, fostering open dialogues within school communities, and advocating for policies that support equity are crucial steps. Teachers can be agents of change, inspiring a shift toward educational environments where every student, regardless of their race or background, has the opportunity to thrive.