Groton’s Fitch High School strives to increase diversity in advanced classes

By Kimberly Drelich

This is an excerpt from an article that originally appeared in The Day on January 20, 2024.

Jessica Lamb, EOS Partnership Director, talks with a junior at Fitch High School in January. Photo by Dana Jensen for The Day.

Groton ― Marin Green, a 2022 graduate of Robert E. Fitch High School, remembers talking with fellow high school classmates in the Black Student Union about how their higher-level classes at Fitch were not diverse.

They noticed a lot of students in the higher-level classes had gone to the more demographically white middle school, the former Cutler Middle School, while there weren’t as many students from the more diverse middle school, the former West Side Middle School.

Green said the BSU students, with support of the school, surveyed Fitch students to find out why that was. The survey found students of color didn’t see the classes as diverse and they didn’t have their middle school friends and the social connections that would make them comfortable in those classes. Some students didn’t have the confidence to step into a college-level course, or didn’t have the support at home.

Those survey results began an effort to increase the representation of students of color in advanced classes ― including talking to students in middle school, now the consolidated Groton Middle School ― about high school classes so they can prepare.

Fitch students are encouraging their peers to take more academically rigorous classes so the classes better reflect the school’s overall population. To help the effort, the Groton school district is partnering with Equal Opportunity Schools, which is a Seattle-based nonprofit organization, that works with school districts across the country to ensure that all students have access to advanced classes.

Principal Matthew Brown said the long-term goal is to get as close as possible to having all students at the high school challenge themselves with at least one high-level course.

More students already are taking higher-level classes. In the fall of 2022, 42% of low-income students and students of color were participating in AP/IB coursework, while 57% of total low-income students and students of color had selected AP/IB courses in the fall of 2023.

Overall, 69% of Fitch students are taking at least one honors, Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate class during the 2023-24 school year compared to last year when 64% of students took at least one higher-level course.

Jessica Lamb, partnership director at Equal Opportunity Schools, who has been visiting Fitch to talk with students and staff, said the partnership has focused on helping students feel empowered to choose classes based on what draws their curiosity and what they’re interested in pursuing after high school.

Nylah Ojeda-Matthews, 15, a sophomore who was in the BSU last year and now is focused on cheerleading, said she initially was hesitant to take higher-level classes because she had heard different opinions on them and she felt like she wasn’t at that level.

But she said she had to find out for herself.

Now that she has taken them she realizes that what really matters is how she comprehends the information, adding the teachers are always helpful.

Ojeda-Matthews said she likes that the advanced classes are more challenging, and she feels she learns more in those classes.

“I honestly feel a lot better about myself because I feel like I can finally test my limits when it comes to getting more information and so far it’s been the best,” she said. “I love learning more about things, and that’s what these higher level classes do: they teach you a lot more than a normal, base class would, and I think that’s what overall makes it really fun for me.”

Lamb said at schools across the board, she typically sees that students of color and students experiencing poverty don’t enroll in the same levels of classes due to systemic barriers. For example, students may not enroll in an advanced class because of a belief that they will have to pay for an exam, even though many schools, including Groton, pay for the tests.

Fitch students who completed a survey were linked to teachers or staff they listed as “trusted adults” at school, Brown said. The adults, who were trained through Equal Opportunity Schools on how to have conversations with students about higher-level classes, encouraged the students to challenge themselves by taking the most rigorous courses they could.

Read the article on The Day here.