Keeping the ‘Underachievers’ Out. [Updated.]

G.W. Carver High School for Engineering and Science

G.W. Carver High School for Engineering and Science, in Philadelphia.

E&S is a small, academically selective school in North Philly with a largely black student body, and is one of the school district’s premier magnet programs, along with Central, The Philadelphia High School for Girls and Masterman. When I graduated from E&S, it boasted the highest college acceptance rate in the city — somewhere in the high 90’s.

Yesterday I got a message on Facebook from a fellow graduate, who was forwarding a note from a concerned alumnus about a new plan at our alma mater to admit about 60 marginal students. This concerned alumnus thinks the move will usher in the school’s demise.

It is time for us to band together and unite for the greater good of Engineering & Science high school as we once knew it and as it is now.

We have just recieved word from down town that the superintendent of schools is about to send 60 under achieving 8th Grade students (they are all 15-16 years old with multiple disciplinary problems as well as poor grades) to e&s as students. The way of thinking behind this is to get the kids out of environments they are in and transplant them into environments where the students are learning and doing well in hopes that it will inspire the other kids to do well. Okay, i will admit it may be an interesting way of thinking but not here at E&S. But let me continue. It is to be believed that the kids will have their own special english and math classes then interacti with the other students in the other classes such as engineering, computer science etc.

Why is this not good for E&S?

Some of us may have picked E&S as well as recommended and sent family to the school because of the small nurturing environment, as well as not having to worry about disciplinary issues that prevents children from making progress in their studies. We all made the decision to get the best grades to get to this environment. The students they are sending are not diserving of enrollment in this school, not even borderline. They are Repeaters as it relates to failing in regular comprehensive K-8s and somehow the district thinks that putting them here at e&S where we are an academically rigorous program with influence these kids to learn. It will only further induce frustration and cause many other problems with in the school which in turn will kill our recruiting base and thus lead to the end of Engineering & Science High School. None of these students they are sending has a shot of making enrollment at E&S so why send them here? They are not sending any to Central, masterman, Girls High, They are not even sending any to Capa* which technically would make more sense in the fact that these kids may have talents in the arts and maybe it will inspire them to do well.

Some of you are aware of the situation which occured in chicago over the past weekend and from what i hear this was in relation to what they did in chicago which is exactly what they are trying to do at E&S. its not a healthy solution for either group of Kids. Our students work hard to get here and stay here and diserve not to be disrespected by the district in such a manner.

We are asking for your support in what ever needs to happen. Principal Ahmed and home and school will attempt to hold a meeting Thursday evening october 1st at 6pm at the School. Please forward this to all alumni. If they can not attend you can please Call the school at xxxx to ask what can be done. I can also be reached via this e-mail or cell phone at xxxxx.

Thankyou all in advance for your time and efforts.

I’ll let the irony of the spelling/grammar in this e-mail speak for itself. (And that allusion to the Derrion Albert tragedy is the cheapest kind of fearmongering.)

But what, exactly, would be the downside of giving a grip of underachieving students access to better educational resources/opportunities than they’d otherwise receive?

Our play-cousin Cindy Mosqueda points to an argument by Jeannie Oakes in Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality that said this new arrangement could have significant upside for students of varying aptitude.

Despite the fact that the first assumption — that students learn more or better in homogeneous groups — is almost universally held, it is simply not true. Or, at least, we have virtually mountains of research evidence indicating that homogeneous grouping doesn’t consistently help anyone learn better.

[This finding] leads us to question the assumption that the presence of low and average students in classes has the effect of diminishing the quality of classroom experiences. to the contrary, it appears that the presence of a number of the brightest students in class may raise the quality of both the content presented and the kinds of learning opportunities available to students of all types.”

I’m glad I went to E&S; Ms. Aglira, my English teacher from 9th grade who dressed head-to-toe in the same color like a Power Ranger — earrings matched her pants which matched her shoes which matched her blouse — is easily responsible for half of my vocabulary, and turned me into a word nerd. Ms. McIntosh, my 10th grade English teacher (and an unabashed AKA) was the first person to nudge me in the direction of becoming a writer.** This is sort of a basic organizing principle of my worldview, but getting into/graduating from E&S isn’t a testament to my intellectual ability or discipline, but a testament to my exceeding good fortune. And the idea shouldn’t be to preserve those learning experiences for a select few who meet some arbitrary criteria, but to make them more widely available. We have to wonder about the wisdom of a magnet school system in which a disproportionate amount of educational resources are allocated to students based on their academic performances prior to their 14 birthdays, and leaves those kids deemed unworthy to fend for themselves in overcrowded, neglected and dangerous schools.

*CAPA is the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, and gave the world Boyz II Men, The Roots, Bilal and Jazmine Sullivan. (My twin sister, a professional choreographer, went there as well.) This guy’s comments re: CAPA pays that school some kind of backhanded compliment, like a rigorous arts education could help some marginal student find her footing, but a rigorous academic environment could not. That’s type gross.

**When she was handing back a writing assignment on Richard Wright’s “Black Boy,” Ms. Mac singled out my paper and asked me to read my essay aloud to the class. (It was on — surprise! — race and perception.) Mortified, I refused. So she read it aloud herself, while I buried my head in my desk and tried to will myself invisible. When she was done, she rolled up my paper, and clubbed me over the head with it. “This is what I expect from you all the time.” It was a small moment, but it was weighted with that strange power only wielded by teachers and parents, and so I’ve never forgotten it. And, yeah, I went to a high school for math and science to realize that I was supposed to be a writer. Your boy’s none too bright.


From the president of the Alumni Association:

“In a conversation with the school this morning, indications are that the District has changed its mind with respect to E&S. The meeting, however, will still take place and all who are able are asked to still show up at 6:00 on October 1st, just so that we can stay informed. It is important for us to be on the ready in the instance that the District revisits its plan. ”

Many of you have contacted us to find out what you can do to help. You can write letters, and call the school/school district to voice your concerns. In light of the recent news, we will relay more information after tonight’s meeting. Thank you for your concern and willingness to advocate for E&S!

Ugh. I’m at a loss.

22 thoughts on “Keeping the ‘Underachievers’ Out. [Updated.]

  1. Leigh September 30, 2009 at 3:47 pm Reply

    Lots of thoughts about this topic…

    First, this:

    “It will only further induce frustration and cause many other problems with in the school which in turn will kill our recruiting base and thus lead to the end of Engineering & Science High School.”

    Is histrionic and sort of hilarious.

    But I think this person has a point in her misplaced exclusivity. 14 years old IS late to enroll kids w/multiple problems in a select environment. Education as intervention is particularly effective at an early age or consistently over a career; I guess I’m just curious – why now? At 14? At the transition to high school, when middle school is the high risk years, or when early childhood intervention is so promising. And I am also curious – why your high school? Why has E&S been singled out? Because disciplinary problem students might turn out to be engineering geniuses? Because you have slack capacity? Because you have the best faculty? Is there a corresponding level of student interest in this experiment to contrast this woman’s opposition?

    In principle I’m not opposed to giving these kids a chance with a better education, but it seems based on the info in this OP alone like a high risk policy strategy in which if something backfires – the kids prove too disruptive, there’s severe social tension – these at-risk students might be blamed when in reality the program was designed poorly.

  2. Alisa September 30, 2009 at 5:50 pm Reply

    I’d like to echo the questions that Leigh has posed above and also the reservations about the possibility of failure due to poor program design.

    That being said, that letter made me so. fucking . ANGRY.

    I might have more to say when I’m not pissed, but for the time being all I can think of are the kids I work with frequently where people have decided by their early to mid-teens that they aren’t worth anything. And more often than not the communities and environments that these kids occupy reflect that fact. They’re poor. They have shitty schools with broken furniture, leaky ceilings, permanently malfunctioning bathrooms…there are prisons is better condition. If I told you to go do your work in those conditions, you would walk out right? You would refuse. If compelled to stay you would likely be really resentful and think that your surroundings were a reflection of what I thought of you. And maybe you’d act out. Maybe you would think there was no point in respecting the school or the people in it because it’s already so fucked up anyway.

    I don’t know if bringing these particular kids to E&S is going to be what changes their lives – as Leigh pointed out 14 or 15 is far along and intervention is better aimed at younger kids. But that doesn’t mean that environment isn’t a HUGE deal. It can change a person’s whole life trajectory. It’s not fair that some people get an advantage like that and others don’t.

  3. aisha September 30, 2009 at 6:27 pm Reply

    By the time i was 11 I figured out going to a Magnet school was going to open many doors for me. I firmly believe that resources are unfairly given to those who needed it least. I had the best teachers, guest speakers and field trips. If these approaches work they need to be mainstreamed so everyone ha access. I hope the new kids will benefit but they will need extra support to adjust to the new environment.

    In the affluent areas of dc region to get your child diagnosed with ADHD so they can get an Indivdual Education Plan and get extra assistance for their child. Not because the child needs it because the parents have figured out how to game the system.

  4. Darius K. September 30, 2009 at 6:41 pm Reply

    I attended a school like E&S in Virginia — the major difference being the population was largely white and Asian. I did not know that there existed tech-focused magnet schools that served largely black populations, and I am really grateful that at least one exists!!

    Re: the above letter, I say that it’s an experiment that is worth a shot. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it’s not going to take the whole school down with it.

  5. bitchphd September 30, 2009 at 7:15 pm Reply

    I have three reactions.

    One, seriously: letting the “bright” privileged kids have to deal with the potential social disruption of the “difficult” kids is a HUGE privilege, especially at that age (when social hierarchies are really starting to cement). If the teachers are clever, they can use the “established” kids to help teach the “new” kids, which is an *awesome* experience and can form solid friendships across class lines. I can’t too strongly speak to the benefit of that sort of thing.

    Two, my bestest friend in h.s. had “worse” test scores than I did. I was generally seen as brighter. She is now tenured at one of the country’s top liberal arts schools, has written award-winning scholarly work on groundbreaking subjects, and I am a housewife. Q.E.D.

    Three, it’s kind of reassuring in a terribly selfish way to see black folks (I presume) having to grapple with the same tension between “providing opportunity” and “safeguarding *our* children” that I’ve been arguing with white folks about for years. I know that class issues are big, but I sort of feel like b/c I’m anglo, even wanting PK to go to a magnet school like this is a problem, b/c I kind of feel like the visible presence of middle-class white kids in “regular” public schools is really important. So I confess to feeling a sort of relieved camaraderie that even parents whose kids seem, at least in terms of straight-up appearances, to represent diversity (and therefore the magnet school thing is a little less charged) have to deal with the same arguments in a slightly different context.

    • Leigh September 30, 2009 at 9:54 pm Reply

      Have you read Black on the Block? Mary Pattillo gets at intra-racial class dynamics re: housing and neighborhood development really well.

      • bitchphd October 1, 2009 at 11:51 am Reply

        I haven’t; thanks for the recommendation.

  6. Leigh September 30, 2009 at 9:55 pm Reply

    Of course, a magnet school need not mean everyone is middle class, but it sure often works out that way.

  7. cindylu September 30, 2009 at 10:42 pm Reply

    My school district had no magnet schools. I didn’t know about them until I talked to my cousins who attended them or were bussed to other schools in LAUSD.

    The tracking in my LA suburb was all within a school. When I read Jeannie Oakes’ book, I was upset as I saw how tracking affected my family, but in a way worked for me*. Basically, my older brother was seen as underachieving as was assigned to non-college prep (read Mickey Mouse) classes. He had no behavioral problems, but he was tracked into math and English classes that automatically made him ineligible to apply straight out of high school to four-year college. I, just one year behind, tested as gifted in elementary school. On Fridays, I was sent for enriched studies to another school. Half a dozen from my mainly Latino elementary school were sent on a bus. Our bus picked up another 40 kids in the richer area of our suburb. Those kids were mainly Asian, with a few white kids. I got used to that in middle school and high school.

    *I only think it worked for me because I had great teachers who were challenging us in the classroom and I learned a lot about studying and applying/preparing for college from my peers. Basically, I learned what I would need to do to keep up with them.

  8. Zesi October 1, 2009 at 1:23 am Reply

    I don’t think it’s a terrible idea. From experience with teenagers, it may or may not work. They have minds and histories of their own. However, you’d be surprised when you put Kid A in a new environment. Some kids like to follow what everyone else is doing, and if everyone else is learning, they’ll be free to do that.

  9. Kiana October 1, 2009 at 3:39 am Reply

    If those “underachieving” kids don’t excel at least they can never say no one ever gave them the OPPORTUNITY to try. I wish I could be at that meeting when “concerned” parents attempt to justify denying another child a better education.

    I went to a very competitive high school in long beach CA. From day 1 students are separated into academies (two of them magnet). I remember a girl from a non-magnet program transferred to my AP English class her senior year but it wasn’t done discreetly — the instructor told the entire class that she wasn’t a magnet student and took a test that the rest of us didn’t have to take to determine if she could keep up. Alumni, parents, and especially students, shouldn’t know shit about any kids’ educational or disciplinary background. I can’t imagine the additional pressure my classmate felt knowing that we knew she was “different.” My HS says the academies aren’t ranked but students know that’s bull since magnet kids get 1st dibs to AP/honor courses. We even had to stay one period extra than other students.

    My graduating class had over 1000 students but I could name all the black kids in my program because the majority of my classmates were white or asian. A lot of them were bused in from neighboring cities or the more affluent areas of Long Beach – they def didn’t look like the kids who live near campus. Sadly, my dad warned me b4 I was accepted into the school that as soon as I started acting like “those kids” (he assumed they were all having sex or gang bangin) I was going to a whiter, wealthier school near our home. Classism is no joke.

  10. ladyfresh October 1, 2009 at 9:24 am Reply

    I’ll let the irony of the spelling/grammar in this e-mail speak for itself.

    oh boy did it (*gets all self conscious about her typos*…but not enough to stop!)

    I had to take a break because i did not want to break into a rant, its still tempting though.

    This strikes close to home. At a certain point I fell behind my over achieving classmates, i believe it was 8th grade. Math became the bane of my existence. I had encouraging but at the same time discouraging parents, encouraging in that cheerleader way (you can do it! you can do better that this!) discouraging in that they had very little education themselves and did not know that simply ‘study harder’ was not a solution. Lucky for them and me i loved reading. I excelled at those subjects simply for the ease and love if it with less and less success in math. I did not get into one the the major schools in NY because of this left out of the stuyvesant, tech loop. Even in regular high school i was still put in advance placement but math classes continued to be a problem. Teachers did not want to give up on me but unfortunately they were as puzzled as me as to what the problem was. This lasted through college I had to switch majors (marketing to communications) that is how bad it was, i simply could not afford to barely scrape through classes and go to school for 5/6 years until i learned what i needed to to graduate.

    Recently i think i may have figured out the problem(15 years later, sheesh), i suspect i have a learning disability, dyscalculia. Which no one ever tested me for. I also suspect that if i was… my parents would have denied it’s existence for fear of me being labeled a ‘problem’ child and being held back…considering the lack of support in the school system back then i’d reluctantly have to agree.

    I don’t want to believe but I know those parents are only concerned for their own and can’t or won’t recognize the potential assistance that can be given to those kids if it puts their child at ‘risk’. I know i’m downplaying the risk factor which i know can be real if this isnt handled properly. I can’t help but wince though at the energy being put into complaining instead of making sure the program is handled properly. It’s sad.

  11. ladyfresh October 1, 2009 at 2:56 pm Reply

    *jaw drops* @ the update

    just wow

  12. Ron October 4, 2009 at 10:47 pm Reply

    When I was in middle school, I recall my principal telling my mother that they got rid of the gifted classes because they thought having the smart kids in regular classes would give the lower achieving students people they could model from and learn from.

    It was hooey then and it’s hooey now. That said, the whole inner-city magnet trend just reeks of talented tenth silliness that obscures the real problem (as in, too many of the schools stink) because these districts are run by out of touch bureaucrats who don’t seem to have a real grasp on the problems at hand or experiment in ways that people would never tolerate for other industries.

    • G.D. October 4, 2009 at 10:52 pm Reply

      but the research quoted above says it’s not hooey.

      Why do you think it’s hooey? Because you disagree with it?

    • quadmoniker October 5, 2009 at 4:28 pm Reply

      Are you saying educational bureaucrats experiment in ways that people would never tolerate in other industries? Really? You can’t think of any other industry where the decision-makers experimented without real boundaries, leading to bad outcomes?

      • Ron October 7, 2009 at 6:13 pm Reply

        Oh no, it happens all of the time in profit-driven industries. And experimentation is great, but when it’s “let’s slap together a new idea this week and see what it yields for us,” at the peril of students (and teachers) who have to deal with these policies (That sometimes change year to year to year) it’s a problem. But folks “trust” the institutions, so the protests don’t happen until test scores come back.

        • G.D. October 7, 2009 at 6:17 pm Reply

          What makes you suggest the plan was just slapped together?

          • Ron October 7, 2009 at 6:29 pm Reply

            I was speaking generally in response to bureaucratic plans that tend to happen throughout education, not this specific example.

  13. mute October 5, 2009 at 4:19 pm Reply

    I agree with those above that say this would have at least been worth trying. Perhaps it won’t result in a 180 for the kids, but the experience of being in a tamer, more academically rigorous environment could still positively impact the futures of those 60 students in multiple ways. I was never a great student, but since the baseline at my school was high, it still forced me to do more just to keep up with my peers and keep their respect.

    Considering that these are students that have had behavioral problems in the past, I could be more sympathetic to the letter writer and other complainants if this were more about student safety. Those new students would be about a third of the 9th grade, which does seem like a lot to me. However, since the concern here seems to mostly be standards and reputation, I’m mostly just irked. The thought that this group of students could completely erode the quality of the teaching and the attitudes the other students bring to the school seems nuts to me.

    I also appreciate the inclusion of the Jenny Oakes quote in this post as well. It was good to have a reminder that the positive effects wouldn’t just have to be one way. I know these are mostly black kids in North Philly, but its not to early for them to get a lesson on their relative privileges and good fortune. Not that I think the only value of those 60 students would have been as foils to E&S student’s experiences. I know there are plenty of unstimulated intellects in that group.

  14. Dave October 6, 2009 at 3:20 pm Reply



    having some familiarity with the SDOP, i’m curious as to what brought this experiment into conception. like, what concerns, intents, etc. considering the district’s so deathly ill, it’d be remiss to not meet this experiment with a little skepticism. lots of deadlocks and ineptitude, not a typical atmosphere for great ideas. lol

    furthermore, as it’s described here, it doesn’t sound well thought out. i’m imagining it to be slightly more graceful than plucking ants from your backyard, and sticking them in a jar full of dirt, hoping they’ll adjust and flourish as a new colony.

    is there some sort of orientation program? as a person who experienced the opposite (leaving E&S for a neighborhood school 😦 ) without some sort of education regarding what i was about to experience, i spent the first year in my new school adjusting to the culture shock, learning how to navigate a completely different environment.

    these kids are (obviously, judging by the update’s quote) already looked at by E&S and some of its alumni as some sort of scholastic scourge. the current students who feel entitlement for having “earned” their way into the school would probably be inclined to look down their nose a bit, parents as well.

    seems like overall a strong concept that would have been unwieldy in this particular application.

    all that being said, it really does sound like something worth exploring. the singling out of E&S does seem odd; i’d like to see this happen in more magnet schools, complete with some sort of orientation for the students.

    (btw, whoever wrote that letter is a complete moron. diserving? really? and the capa thing. WOW. are we talking about high school? do i know this person? ’98??)

    • G.D. October 6, 2009 at 5:32 pm Reply

      Man, I’ve been meaning to ask you for years what that transition was like. E&S was some kind of bizarro public school; i think we had one fight the whole time I was there. (Basim and some white dude.)

      You gotta think there wouldbe some kind of orientation program, and if E&S is smart, they’d do it blindly, not letting the other students know who the “troubled kids” are when they enrolled. It’s all moot now, I guess.

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