SACRAMENTO – A Gilroy high school’s move toward “academic tracking” that prompted the surprise resignation of the school’s top officials has stirred the debate among educators who say tracking unfairly excludes low-income and minority students.
So-called academic tracking is a classification system in which students are placed in groups based on their academic ability, with the brightest kids taking separate classes or receiving more challenging coursework.
Historically, students were placed in high or low “tracks” in elementary school and stayed in those same groups throughout their educational careers. Lower tracks often focused on vocational training rather than intense academic work.
Although tracking has evolved into many different forms, it still exists around the country today, according to Sylvia Seidel, who runs a professional school development program for the National Education Association in Washington, D.C.
While schools rarely categorize kids as high- and low-performing any more, many districts do offer continuous honors courses starting in elementary school and running through high school.
“Tracking is still one of the most highly debated issues,” Seidel said. “There are vestiges of it everywhere, but the trend is moving away from tracking.”
Most educators agree that students learn best when course work is geared toward individual ability, but critics worry that some students won’t have equal access to the classes if they are deemed as low achieving early on.
In California, many districts say they are trying to focus on a tough curriculum for all kids, not just the brightest few.
So when the board of the Gilroy Unified School District announced last week that it would implement a pilot honors program that includes separate classes for some of its ninth-graders, school principal Wendy Gudalewicz promptly resigned, calling the decision “morally and educationally wrong.”
“At our high school, we’ve made dramatic gains. We’ve doubled the number of students going to college,” Gudalewicz said. “We’ve met (state testing) targets, and all the subgroups have met the targets. When that happens, why put something in place that is going to turn us backward?”
Gudalewicz, along with assistant principals Cec Bell and Rosa Nieto, resigned to protest the decision, citing fears the district is reinstating academic tracking.
The ninth-grade pilot program will close the gap in the district’s honors programs, giving priority to kids who took honors classes in eighth-grade and helping pave the way for Advanced Placement classes in 11th- and 12th-grade.
Gudalewicz maintains that low-income or minority kids who didn’t get into honors classes early on would have trouble breaking into them in high school.
The program, which will start this fall, was approved after a group of parents turned in a petition with more than 200 signatures and packed school board meetings pushing for the change.
Jackie Caldwell, who is sending her 14-year-old son, Austin, to a private school rather than Gilroy High so he would have more challenging classes, said tracking is not about race.
“As an African-American, I support the program,” said Caldwell, who is a member of the parent group that turned in the petition. “Both my husband and I were tracked in the 60s and 70s, and we do not see this a race issue.”
Caldwell, who attended California public schools all her life, says the move away from tracking hurts high-performing students.
“We have a daughter in junior high who is also a high achieving student,” Caldwell said. “We’re waiting to see if the curriculum is going to be changed before deciding if she goes (to Gilroy High.) They would have to have an honors program if she did.”
Gilroy Superintendent Edwin Diaz said that although he was disappointed with Gudalewicz’s resignation, the classes are needed to bring Gilroy High students up to speed.
“This isn’t such a huge leap,” Diaz said. “The typical model in Santa Clara County and the state is to have some sort of accelerated class.”
Gilroy, which is south of San Jose, is a rural area that is quickly turning into a bedroom community for Silicon Valley workers. By 2000, Gilroy’s population had grown by 29 percent compared to a decade before.
At the same time, Gilroy has also seen a rise in low-income and minority residents. More than half of Gilroy residents are Hispanic.
Diaz said he’s concerned that some parents will choose to pull their kids out of public schools unless the schools offers classes for higher-achieving students.
“If we’re not able to meet the needs of the whole spectrum of kids, then the public education system is falling apart,” Diaz said. “We’ve spent the last two years improving the achievement of students below grade level. We also have to be mindful and diligent to students that are already performing well.”
But many school districts, like Sacramento City Unified School District, which groups kids of all levels together in a single class, maintain that students can benefit from a heterogeneous learning environment.
Lee Yang, assistant principal at Pacific Elementary School, said classes at the school have an equal mix of high- and low-performing students. The high-performing students get extra work tacked onto their homework assignments, while students who have difficulty with the work get extra help from classroom tutors.
“It’s beneficial to both groups,” Yang said. “Lower-end students get more tutoring and they also get help from kids who are doing well in the class. At the same time, it gives the higher-end kids a chance to apply what they’ve learned.”
Diaz said Gilroy’s pilot program will benefit lower-achieving students, allowing teachers to devote more time to help them reach their potential. He said that people can sometimes overlook the benefits because the discussion often is centered around “issues relating to access and race and privilege”
“I made it very clear that if we do end up with these classes, they will be open to everyone,” he said.