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World history teacher Larry Aaronson was a ready convert to heterogeneous classrooms, but many teachers still are not. (Globe Staff Photo / Justine Element)
Course Correction

Cambridge Rindge and Latin is one of the few urban high schools to place A students and D students in the same classrooms. Achievement-blind classes are intended to break down barriers, but it remains to be seen if the program will serve as a national model or a cautionary tale.

By Michelle Bates Deakin, 6/8/2003

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enth-grade chemistry teacher Eddie McGillicuddy is a dead ringer for Archie Bunker. Slicked-back white hair crowns his ruddy Irish face, and white athletic socks poke out between black pants and black sneakers. His demeanor bears more than a little resemblance to that of the patriarch of TV's All in the Family, too, as he barks out instructions to his students in chemistry lab. "Get up. Don't just sit there like a foreman on a DPW job," he shouts. "Watch your arm! Look how close it is to that Bunsen burner."

McGillicuddy's orders have limited success. While some of the 20 sophomores dutifully don goggles, wash test tubes, and weigh compounds, others flirt, some debate whether anyone plays hoops better than Shaq, and one just stares out of the classroom door.

On the surface, the students are a diverse-looking group: African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanics, whites. But their greater diversity is invisible to the eye -- their academic ability. At Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, students are paired to create lab partners with wildly different abilities. A D student lights a burner beside an A student. Next to them, a special-needs student calculates the weight of the burned-off oxygen with the help of his partner, a high achiever.

While the brightest learners tap their pencils and stare into space, a gum-chewing "McGill," as his students call him, repeats instructions for a fourth and fifth time. "I want some numbers," he shouts. "I'm going to tell you how to do this, so you better get something out. It's called a pen. A notebook."

Welcome to the world of heterogeneous classrooms, a bold social experiment in its third year at Rindge. McGillicuddy, a 20-year-veteran of the high school, describes heterogeneity in such dismal terms that, to many Cantabrigians, he sounds like Archie Bunker, too. "Special-needs kids are in class impacting other students who want to go to college. I think it's criminal," he says. "I know that makes me sound like Darth Vader, but it's true. I went to a School Committee meeting and said, 'This is wrong,' and they all looked at me like an old, white dinosaur."

Dinosaur or not, McGillicuddy refuses to become extinct. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who are choosing to retire early rather than learn new tricks, McGillicuddy returns each school day to his chemistry classroom. To him, the atmosphere reeks as much of political correctness as it does of the gas that fuels his Bunsen burners.

Heterogeneous classrooms all but eliminate the traditional tracking in public high schools. Rather than being grouped by ability, students in these classrooms are intentionally mixed to ensure a range of academic skills as well as a sampling of races, ethnic groups, and family incomes.

Rindge, Cambridge's only public high school, is one of a handful of large, urban, comprehensive high schools in the country that have adopted heterogeneous classrooms on such a large scale. And the effects have rippled far beyond the classroom, stirring up already contentious issues of race and class and putting the famously liberal politics of Cantabrigians to the test. As education reformers increasingly tout the merits of heterogeneous classrooms, the results of the Cambridge experiment may serve as a model -- or a cautionary tale -- for other school districts considering a similar approach.

The goals of heterogeneous classrooms are laudable, aimed at reversing a pattern in which Cambridge's white students -- the minority in the school -- were succeeding while African-American and Hispanic students were falling farther behind. But the process is a painful one, with teachers grumbling, retiring, and just plain quitting. Bright students are bored. Lagging students are lost. Parents are grousing, and some who can are turning to private schools.

Behind the scenes, the chaos of Cambridge school politics has created a turbulent and unstable environment, where leadership turnover threatens the success of even the smallest reforms. Worse still, Cambridge's kindergarten-through-eight elementary schools run the gamut from high-performing to substandard. So reforming the high school first seems akin to giving an alcoholic a liver transplant before even suggesting that he cut back on his drinking.

On the surface, the idea of heterogeneous classrooms presents a Utopian ideal of all students learning together, whether they hail from upscale Brattle Street or blue-collar Area 3. But step off Broadway and into the crowded, orange-lockered halls of Rindge, and questions harder than any MCAS problem begin to surface. Can the brightest and the slowest students really learn together without students at both ends of the academic spectrum suffering? Are the changes so unsettling to the middle class -- which is already shrinking after the elimination of rent controls in the city -- that heterogeneity will create the largest white flight in the Boston area since busing?

Early returns suggested that almost three years into the heterogeneous experiment, the achievement gap between whites and nonwhites was shrinking, albeit modestly. But amid the clash of the classes and the division between the races, the lingering question is whether administrators, teachers, and parents have the patience and the will to leave the reforms in place long enough for more significant progress to take hold.

ike all public school districts, Cambridge has been grappling with the widening gap between the educational haves and have-nots. But the spectrum may be just a bit wider at Rindge, where children of Nobel Prize winners sit beside recent immigrants with only a handful of English words.

Thirty years ago, Rindge was 70 percent white. Now, 63 percent of its population is students of color (Cambridge itself is 68 percent white). Twenty-two percent of students at the high school qualify for free or reduced-price lunches; 19 percent are enrolled in special-education programs; and 10 percent are in bilingual education. Despite this majority of minority students, the bulk of the school's resources was directed at the college-bound minority of whites. African-American and Hispanic students had disproportionately high dropout, failure, and suspension rates and disproportionately low rates of college acceptance.

For a decade, teachers, administrators, and parents debated how to re-create the system, with no success. Then came Paula Evans. After taking the helm as principal in 1999, she introduced change quickly and turbulently, pushing through sweeping reforms.

Gone was the old system, where students applied by lottery to one of five "houses." Under that system, low-achieving, low-income minorities gravitated toward two houses, Fundamental and Leadership, while high-income white students filled Pilot or House A. "The success of the upper end was riding on the backs of a lot of failure," recalls Larry Aaronson, a central figure in Pilot House who has been teaching high school in Cambridge for 30 years.

In place of the houses, Evans created five "schools," blandly named 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, within Rindge. To the horror of many parents, they would no longer be able to steer their children toward the school with their preferred teachers and curriculums. Instead, each student was to be assigned to a numbered school based on a dizzying formula of gender, ethnicity, standardized test scores, ZIP code, and special-education needs. The goal was to ensure that each of the five schools is balanced according to race, gender, income, and academic ability.

At the same time that she reorganized Rindge, Evans instituted heterogeneous classes and created a core curriculum for the ninth and 10th grades. Freshmen of every ability were mixed together in physics, world history, world literature, foreign language, and algebra classes. Sophomores take chemistry, more world history and world literature, language, and geometry. Last fall, buckling to the protests of parents and teachers, the administration added an honors geometry class. Its demographics are strikingly different from the ninth- and 10th-grade heterogeneous classes. A recent visit to the class showed 23 students, with one African-American among a sea of white faces.

No other large comprehensive high school in the state has plunged into heterogeneous waters like Cambridge. And Cambridge is alone in creating small schools based upon equity. Other large school systems, like Boston, are moving away from the old model of massive city high schools. But Boston has divided up its smaller high schools by subject matter, creating schools such as the Boston Arts Academy, which cater to students with specialized interests.

Heterogeneous classes are a favorite of education reformers at the vaunted Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, where Evans had founded the Institute for Secondary Education. Among her colleagues there was Ted Sizer, one of the country's most respected voices on education reform and now a visiting professor at the Harvard School of Education and chairman of the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School in Ayer. "This isn't just a nice little theory," Sizer says. "It works."

Dan French, executive director of the Center for Collaborative Education in Boston, agrees. He speaks not just as a reformer but as the father of two daughters, one who is an 11th-grader at Rindge and another who graduated from Rindge and is now a sophomore at New York University. "Too often, the white middle class perceives that when you make a push to better serve low-income children that it is to the disservice of their children. I think there's ample data to show that when there is a push for equity for better serving the needs of low-income black and Hispanic kids that everybody benefits," he says. "That's hard to understand in a society that's based upon privilege of the few. It's not a society that understands how being more egalitarian can benefit everybody."

Despite the endorsements from the ivory towers, Cambridge parents weren't convinced. And even when the dust had settled after the first days of change at the high school, many parents remained skeptical. Rumors persisted that there would be no more honors classes (not true), no more advanced placement classes (the school offers a dozen), and that there would be no elective classes in any of the four years (juniors and seniors choose all of their own classes).

However, some of the parents' concerns have materialized. Parents -- without the ability to choose a school within Rindge, and thus their children's teachers -- are stunned by the poor preparation of some of the teachers. For every teacher who has embraced the reforms and created lessons and assignments that challenge students of all abilities, there's a teacher who is unable to function in a class of diverse learners.

"The first year was horrible," says 30-year teaching veteran Aaronson, who quickly realized that Rindge had been stripped of its culture and was starting from scratch amid disorganization and confusion. When teachers, the bedrock of any school, are at sea, students and parents are hopelessly adrift.

The disarray was more than some parents could bear. "During ninth grade, my daughter came home asking to go to private school," says Carolyn Watson, a white Cambridge mother. "She thought she was wasting her time in her classes and that teachers were really struggling to cope with the range of abilities in the classroom."

Watson and her husband struggled with the question of whether, just a few months into the experiment, to send their daughter to private school. "Would you really say to yourself that you would choose to give your child a lesser high school experience in the service of a greater goal?" asks Watson. "I don't think that at the end of the day I would choose to not do what's right by my kid, even if in the long run I thought what they were doing was good for everyone."

Watson's daughter now attends the Cambridge School of Weston.

When Evans was first pushing the reforms through, panic swirled that anyone who could -- read that as white, upper-middle-class parents -- would yank their children out of public schools. The white flight has been more of a crawl, however. Enrollment numbers at the high school have dropped in the last decade, falling from 2,102 students in 1992 to 1,950 students last year. However, the biggest dip came in 1995, after rent controls were abolished.

At the same time, the demographics of Cambridge were changing dramatically, with a red-hot real estate market chasing out the middle class. The median price of a single-family home in Cambridge has more than doubled in five years, rising to $585,000 from $215,000. And rents have risen significantly.

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