Addressing Inequity at George Washington High School
Dear GW Community –
As educators we walk a fine line between engaging our students in meaningful discussions about current events, while not sharing our own political beliefs. We are asked to teach our students civics while not identifying right or wrong if it can be categorized as ideological preference. But these lines have become increasingly blurred in our society, and we can no longer stay silent or simply “create space” in the wake of yesterday’s insurrection. What is wrong is wrong.
What we witnessed yesterday was the result of white supremacy being given space to grow behind the veil of protection that political affiliations provide. But this insurrection was not a simple matter of Democratic versus Republican ideologies. It was an attack led by extremists who have been given a platform by the President of the United States.
Earlier this fall, our staff came together to create a video to support our students as they processed their anxiety leading up to the election. We shared the video in Community Learning Seminar, but stopped short of sending it to our entire community – rationalizing that it was a message “just for our students.” The reality is that we were allowing politics and the possibility of offending people to minimize our message that we are One George, and that together – and only together – we rise up.
We are sharing this video with you today as the message resonates even more this morning. Each time we have faced adversity at GW we have found strength in each other, in supporting our students, in our community. But know that there is no playbook, no lesson plan, no script to follow. We believe in you, your goodness, your willingness to move forward and help our students and community do the same. We will get through today, the next 13 days, the pandemic, the school year. Together. We are One George and I am grateful to have each and every one of you in our community.
We are Patriot Strong.
Kristin Waters, Ph.D. | Principal
George Washington High School
June 2, 2020
GW Community –
Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. Three more black individuals murdered by white people abusing their positions of power and privilege. To our black community, I grieve with you for the loss of these incredible and cherished lives. In no way can I ever fully understand the anger and grief that you feel and the fatigue you weather navigating an oppressive system that was built to keep you down.
We are hearing a lot right now from brands, organizations, and public figures about their commitment to fighting for justice. But nowhere is this commitment more important than in the schools that our children grow and learn in, and where they build the foundation for the citizens they will become.
We talk often about the treasured diversity in our GW community. But that celebration must include the blunt acknowledgement that our school has not served our students of color equitably over the past 60 years. In education we speak a lot about opportunity gaps, equitable resources, and culturally responsive instruction. We dedicate time and resources to analyzing data on how well our students of color are performing against their white peers. We celebrate gaps being closed. And while this is important work – work that GW is engaged in – it all focuses on the performance of the underserved student. We are placing the onus on the student to improve, grow, and succeed. We are suggesting that absent an inequitable environment, there is no reason a black student shouldn’t have the same outcomes as his white peers. Even if that were true, it is meaningless if tomorrow that black student is murdered while out for a jog.
As we have discussed before, GW has a long history of segregation and inequity. Starting in 2020-2021 we are implementing two important initiatives to address the systemic racism that our school was built upon. However, these initiatives are just the beginning. We need to look at what we are teaching and how we are teaching it. We need to ask ourselves if our students are represented in the books we read, the history we learn, the instructors in our classrooms, and the conversations we have. Right now that answer, more often than not, is “no.” We are committed to pushing and fighting for these changes in our school.
And, if we aren’t simultaneously educating our white community, starting with our staff and including our students and parents, to acknowledge their privilege, identify their biases, recognize injustice, and teach them how to use their power to drive change, closing the opportunity gap won’t do anything to stop our black community members from being killed by those in positions of power. And yes. Simply being white puts us in a position of power.
We are a community of learners. We come together daily to absorb knowledge, challenge ideas, and learn. Today, I am asking our white community members – staff, students, and parents – to join me in recognizing our privilege, power, and biases, and do the necessary work to create a learning environment where every single one of our students feels a sense of belonging.
This past year our staff studied portions of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility as part of our professional development curriculum. This summer I will be re-reading the book and invite our community to read with me. GW will be facilitating a White Fragility community discussion group when school resumes. I hope that you will join us as we look inward to understand how we, white people, have the power to break down racist systems and rebuild our communities so that each and every one of us not only thrives, but also belongs.
To our black community. I know that your experiences at George have not been what they deserve to be. It is not your responsibility to show us what is broken or tell us how to fix it. That is on us. But as we do this work, we will listen and learn and make space for black voices to be amplified and for your experiences to be shared.
Kristin Waters, Ph.D | Principal
George Washington High School
November 12, 2019
Dear GW Community –
Last week our School Leadership Team, a group of colleague-elected teaching faculty and administrative leaders, finalized two key decisions that will begin to address the gaps in opportunity for our students and change the long history of racial and economic segregation at George Washington High School. First, our International Baccalaureate courses will be open to any student. While our IB Diploma Program will remain in place, it is no longer a prerequisite that students be seeking an IB Diploma in order to take an IB course. Second, all incoming 9th graders will be enrolled in English 1 Honors. Both of these initiatives will begin in the 2020-2021 school year.
When we ask our students what they value most about George, their reply is often led with a testament to the powerful impact of belonging to this diverse community. Indeed, our students come from families representing over 60 countries of origin and we hear dozens of languages spoken in our halls every day. However, when we step into a classroom at George, gone is the treasured diversity that is a hallmark of the George community.
Demographically, George’s student body is 39% White, 28% Hispanic, 22% Black, while 50% of our students receive Free/Reduced Lunch (FRL). In stark contrast, however, our 9th grade honors classrooms are 62% white, 14% Hispanic, and 11% black, while our IB Diploma Program for juniors and seniors is 65% White, 12% Hispanic, and 9% Black. While we can’t measure the diversity of socioeconomic status in our classrooms due to federal confidentiality protections, we do know that FRL students are not proportionally represented in all of our classrooms. In short, the demographic composition of our classrooms and advanced academic programs does not mirror that of our student body, and that division begins in 9th grade. In 2019, 65 years after Brown v. Board of Education, our students are attending class in a racially and economically segregated learning environment. While we have met small successes in the past five years with broadened access to our honors and IB programs, there has been no measurable shift in the outcomes for our historically underserved students (see page 2).
We believe not only that every student deserves a rigorous education, but also they deserve to be immersed in a learning environment that is diverse in culture, language, experience, origin, and beliefs. We must do more to make this belief a meaningful reality for all of our students.
9TH GRADE ENGLISH HONORS FOR ALL
By enrolling each of our 9th graders in English 1 Honors, we are joining other Denver area high schools such as East High School, North High School, and Northfield High School in setting high expectations for every student. Research has shown that when students are placed in a heterogenous classroom and given access to a rigorous curriculum, all students experience measurable gains in achievement.
Three years ago the GW English department aligned their English 1 and English 1 Honors classes. Students of all abilities were provided with the same rigorous and engaging curriculum in 9th grade, and outcomes improved across the board. In the years since this shift we have seen a measurable increase in 10th grade English honors enrollment. This re-calibration, paired with a passionate team of 9th grade teachers who believe in their students, made the English department a natural fit for an Honors for All course for 9th graders.
In order for this new program to be successful, it is imperative that we provide students with robust, innovative, and targeted academic support that is built into their school day. As we continue to plan for the ‘20-’21 school year, we will be restructuring our school resources to strengthen support for our 9th graders. We are committing to class sizes no larger than 25 students for our 9th grade core-contents to promote meaningful relationships between teachers and students and create an environment where teachers are empowered to differentiate their instruction. To support our teachers, we are mapping out additional time for planning, collaboration and training.
IB has a long history at George Washington High School. As one of the oldest IB diploma programs in Colorado, GW IB has existed largely unchanged for decades. With a reputation for being academically, racially, and socially insulated, the program has been described as “a school within a school.” Five years ago our community worked to broaden IB access by shifting the decision to enter the program to students’ sophomore year, instead of 8th grade. While this was a step in the right direction, it did little to change the demographic composition of GW IB. Our students of color still face significant hurdles to feeling a sense of belonging in a program that has served predominantly white students for over 30 years.
We believe offering the option for students to take individual IB courses will increase diverse thoughts and perspectives in the classroom, furthering the GW and IB mission to cultivate lifelong learners who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect. We will continue to offer a robust IB diploma program, dedicating resources to a full time IB Program Manager, professional development for teachers, and high expectations for all students enrolled in IB courses.
Both of these initiatives, 9th Grade English Honors for All and Open IB, took root last spring when our community came together in collaboration on the One George 2019 strategic planning process. This past summer, following recommendations from the Patriot Pathways committee, we began examining what it would require to open the IB program further and also enroll each of our freshmen in at least one honors course. We met with over 350 students to hear their opinions and concerns. We visited other schools with these programs to understand where they are experiencing success, and what challenges they are facing. We met with our academic departments to play through the implications of these initiatives. By engaging these stakeholder groups throughout this process, we feel confident that we have the support of our community as we implement these initiatives in ‘20-’21.
We must continue the important work of dismantling systemic racism, segregation, and inequity in education, and specifically at George Washington High School. While this may feel to some as a large shift in our school’s educational infrastructure, this is a relatively small, albeit significant, step in a much larger process. The system as it exists today does not meet the needs of all of our students and we, the teachers, leaders, parents, students, and community members, have the power to change that reality.
Let’s get to work.
Kristin Waters, Ph.D.
Principal | George Washington High School