What students want: High schoolers speak on diversity in their schools
By Jenette Sturges firstname.lastname@example.org November 27, 2012 10:28PM
East Aurora High School senior Amy Holman was one of only a few white students at Waldo Middle School but feels "more included" in high school, like in her literature class on Tuesday, November 27, 2012. | Steven Buyansky~Sun-Times Media
No longer the majority
Percent change White students White students
School District (white students) in 1989-90 in 2009-10
Krug Elementary East Aurora 59 63 4
Greenman Elementary West Aurora 58 70 12
Georgetown Elementary Indian Prairie 55 89 41
Dieterich Elementary East Aurora 53 60 7
Hall Elementary West Aurora 48 74 26
Longwood Elementary Indian Prairie 47 83 36
Boulder Hill Elementary Oswego 46 96 50
McCarty Elementary Indian Prairie 46 87 41
Miller Elementary Plano 45 86 41
Nicholson Elementary West Aurora 44 64 20
Updated: December 29, 2012 6:01AM
Student bodies in schools across the Fox Valley have changed a lot over the past 20 years ago, with more cultures, more languages and more points of view.
And that’s meant challenges for the administrators and teachers charged with teaching students from different backgrounds and with different experiences. But while educators grapple with how best to understand this multi-cultured community, as it happens, there are thousands of experts crowding the hallways.
Though every student has something different to say about their own experiences, conversations with multiple students — as they participated in multicultural clubs, attended minority college fairs or just ate lunch — revealed they feel supported by teachers and administrators but that there is room for improvement when it comes to creating an inclusive educational environment for all students.
While elementary schools top our list of some of the least diverse schools in the Fox Valley, by the time students arrive in high school, they generally appreciate their classmates from other cultures.
‘I feel included’
“I was practically the only white kid at Waldo (Middle School) and kids told me, ‘You’re white, you can’t listen to rap or whatever,’” said East Aurora High School senior Amy Holman. “At East, it’s better. There are more groups you can fit into, but I still feel like the odd one out.”
Students credit teachers with being instrumental in making them feel included, either during in-class discussions or in day-to-day interaction.
“My American government teacher doesn’t mind. He tries to speak Spanish, and just be nice to everybody,” said East High senior Jesus Ponce. “I think teachers are really nice to us. They find a way to connect with their students.”
‘I feel left out’
That said, students at East Aurora ticked of the number of Latino teachers they’ve had on the fingers of just one hand. And at most schools around the Fox Valley, both teachers and students lament the lack of black and Latino teachers and role models among their racially homogenous teaching staff.
Students also said they felt left out because of interactions with other students and because they didn’t see themselves reflected in their curriculum.
“I came from a private school that was pretty much all Asian. So when I came here, I met a whole different group of people. I was much more shy before,” said Meenhaj Kabir, a West Aurora High School student. Kabir said that being a Muslim student at a school with few other Muslim kids can be uncomfortable, especially around Sept. 11 each year.
“All the people I chill out with, they know I’m Muslim, but there’s still jokes about bombs and terrorism,” he said.
That’s despite the best efforts of some teachers to tackle sensitive topics in open discussions. But students said those opportunities are rare. Curriculum, said virtually all of the minority students interviewed, does not always reflect them or the contributions of other black-, Latino- or Asian-Americans.
“It’s OK,” said Shakeya Dawkins, assessing the curriculum she’s studied at East Aurora. “I’m mixed, black and white, and they definitely talk more about white things and people than black.”
At most schools, students said the concentration on ‘the classics’ in literature and humanities classes left them without an appreciation for the contributions of Asian Americans, Latinos and African Americans have made in history and literature.
“In honors classes, we focus on dead white guys. In regular classes, there’s a more African American literature,” said Oswego East High junior Rach Town. “We read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, but that’s by a white woman.”
Teachers, for their part, said they are working to constantly include literature from a variety of authors, wherever curriculum allows.
“We did just get approved a new non-fiction book, ‘The Pact,’ about three doctors out of the ghetto of New Jersey. Freshman teachers use it,” said English teacher Diana Aldaba, at Oswego East. Teachers also added “Habibi,” a 2011 graphic novel from a Middle Eastern perspective to their reading lists.
Otherwise, students said it often falls to student clubs and organizations to learn more about different cultures and create a more inclusive environment. This fall, students in West Aurora’s Diversity Club stayed late to learn about modern life on American Indian reservations — American Indian culture is rarely covered in classes beyond early American colonialism and the Trail of Tears.
Students said history was the biggest offender, with black and Latino history left to be studied largely during Black History Month or classes designed for Latino students.
“You’ll only learn about other cultures if you’re a certain minority and you take a certain minority class,” said West Aurora student Ana Cervantes. “I took Heritage Spanish, and the only reason I learned about Mexican culture is because I took that class. It makes me really mad because I wish I knew more about my culture, and they don’t really focus on it.”
‘I feel prepared’
To call the curriculum at the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora “rigorous” might be a bit of an understatement.
“You have a mini-meltdown every week,” said sophomore Samantha Arrez. “You always think, ‘I’m never going to get it all done.’ But you always do.”
Students at the school study number theory, multiple levels of calculus, and organic chemistry. They can choose from six different languages and take macroeconomics or college-level engineering classes, a far cry from their home schools, which usually conclude math with just one AP Calc class.
A public boarding school for some of the brightest students in the state, IMSA is bound by state charter to recruit a diverse student body, one that is as representative of Illinois’ population as possible — that includes not only race, but also geography and gender — without establishing a quota system.
Still, the school has comparatively few black and Latino students — just 8 percent of students are black and 5 percent are Latino, as of last year’s figures. By comparison, roughly 42 percent of the school’s students are Asian.
“They do a lot to reach out,” said Kenzo Esquivel, a senior at IMSA, who lists a half-dozen initiatives he’s been a part of — either recruiting new students, or when he was being recruited — to attract underrepresented students.
“But the most important thing is to make sure everyone knows about the opportunities. Currently, it’s organic. One student from a school applies and gets in and the next year, a bunch of kids from the school apply.”
IMSA students said they know that a lot of their peers from their old schools are missing out.
“I feel guilty,” said Arrez.
‘I’m not prepared’
Arrez is doing a semester of research at Northwestern University and the long travel time gives her the chance to ponder the classmates she left behind in her hometown of Berwyn. There, just 16 percent of the largely Latino student body at Sterling High School tested ready for college math on their ACTs, and just 7 percent proved ready for college science. “Why should I get all these opportunities, and they don’t get any of it,” she said. “It just makes me angry about the whole education system in general.”
East Aurora senior Alma Lopez said that she doesn’t feel ready for college, either applying — neither of her parents went to college and haven’t been able to help her with applications and financial aid — or for her freshman year.
“Not really, It’ll be a new school, new people, harder classes,” said Lopez. “I’m going for accounting, and they say it’s really hard.” She said her senior year schedule isn’t filled with honors or AP classes, either.
“I’ve always looked (at colleges) myself,” said Neuqua Valley junior Alyssa Alanillo, wandering East Aurora’s Hispanic College Fair last month with a bag stuffed full of pamphlets. “My parents don’t know a lot about it.”
‘It’s not a big issue’
What does prepare students for the wider world outside of high school are the different people they encounter in classes, student clubs and in the halls.
“It’s definitely a benefit. You’re able to see different cultures, and you have to learn to work with different people and different cultures,” said West Aurora student Chelea Van Sickle. “There are things I never would have thought about if someone hadn’t brought it up in a class or something.”
Van Sickle and her friends from the school’s Multicultural Club said while they have plenty of complaints about teachers, administrators and the curriculum treating students unfairly, racial tension is typically at a minimum, and students get into fights about “typical teenage stuff,” not issues of race.
“(The teachers) don’t see students differently,” said Ponce, the East Aurora senior. “Everybody gets along. We’re like one big happy family.”
The students in MOSAIC, Oswego East High School’s diversity club, make it a point to get along. Last month, the organization met to plan its annual Diversity Day celebration, this year themed “Dip into Diversity.”
Between their research on dips from cuisine around the world — from salsa to hummus to hoisin sauce — students assessed their school as generally friendly and open.
“We have a very diverse school,” said senior Faith King. “Ninety-nine percent, not everybody, but 95 to 99 percent of people all get along.”
‘It’s a big issue’
But then there’s the 1 to 5 percent of other people. Most students said they feel as though they’re treated unfairly sometimes, though they don’t believe it’s intentional.
“I’ve seen black kids and white kids fight, and they get treated differently,” said King.
A recent study of data from the U.S. Department of Education backs up that assertion, finding that, across the Chicago area, black and Latino students were much more likely to face police referrals for fights and other crimes in schools.
But do students think their school is racist — however they wanted to define the meaning of the word?
Some kids shook their heads ‘no,’ some ‘yes.’
For some parents and educators, it may take charts and statistics of achievement gaps and enrollment figures to figure out there’s still a problem left to solve when it comes to teaching diverse students.
But to students, it’s pretty obvious, and they’re pretty blunt about it.
“There are more Asian and Indian kids in honors bio,” said King at Oswego East. “I never see any other black kids in my honors classes.”
But the solution, they say, is also pretty obvious.
“Get to know us,” said West Aurora student Myesha Ramsey.
At each school, students raved about one teacher or counselor who kept their office door open, reached out to students and tried to speak their language — sometimes literally — to figure out what students were thinking and feeling, what was hindering their progress as learners, and how to motivate them to succeed. Often, it was a connection between just one or two role models who students said pushed them.
“Just one-on-one, tell us you expect things out of us,” said Ramsey. “Knowing someone cares and is watching me really helps.”