The Upper Dublin School District will scale back its use of academic tracks as part of a settlement with African American parents over allegations of discrimination against black students.
The school board approved the settlement at a meeting Monday night, according to the Public Interest Law Center, an advocacy group that represented the parents in a complaint filed in 2015 with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. The complaint alleged the district had been disproportionately suspending black students and placing them in lower-level classes.
Under the settlement, with the exception of eighth-grade math, the Montgomery County district will phase out tracked classes — which group students based on ability — over the next four years at the middle-school level, according to the law center. By the 2022-23 school year, the high school level will have no more than two academic tracks, and students won’t be required to have taken honors courses to enroll in Advanced Placement classes.
Parents also will be able to override teacher recommendations for class placements. The district will provide data annually to the school board on the representation of African American students in higher-level classes.
Tina Lawson, president of the Concerned African American Parents group that brought the complaint, said Tuesday that the district had made it difficult for students to get into a higher academic track.
“You had to sign a letter, you had to go to a counselor,” she said. “It just wasn’t open to everyone.” Lawson, a lawyer, said her son, now a college sophomore, had received a 94 in history in eighth grade, but wasn’t recommended for honors history in high school. “I had to go up there and really fight,” she said.
In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Ben Geffen, a lawyer with the Public Interest Law Center, called the settlement a model for districts nationally "for policies that promote racial equity and allow all students to reach their full potential.”
The Upper Dublin district, which enrolls about 4,000 students, has taken steps to limit the use of out-of-school suspensions, according to the law center. In 2015, when the parents filed their complaint, black students made up 7.3% of the student body, but received 45% of its out-of-school suspensions.
The settlement requires the district to develop regulations specifying when it will involve police in discipline issues, in line with a memorandum of understanding between the police department and district.
Lawson said that in years past, police were called out regularly “on African American students. Now, it just won’t happen."
She said superintendent Steven Yanni, who took over the district in 2018, had already made changes in disciplinary practices.
Yanni said in a statement Tuesday that the district was “pleased to bring the complaint to a resolution. As a district we are focused on equitable practices that are best for all students. We will continue to help all students realize success now and in the future.”
The district also has taken some steps to reduce the number of academic tracks, Lawson said. At one point, the high school had four levels of classes. Now there are three, she said.
Of why black students were disproportionately enrolled in lower-level classes, “I think it’s just low expectations,” Lawson said. “Our children were sort of invisible.” She said parents have been pushing for them to be “treated equally.”