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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, the chef who puts chic into kimchi. But first, American schools have struggled to close what's called the minority achievement gap - lower average test scores, grades and college attendance rates among black and Latino students.

Typically, children who are falling behind are placed in remedial classes intended to help them catch up. But some schools are starting to say that the way they group students by ability, often called tracking or leveling, can cause more problems than they solve.

Nancy Solomon spent last year as a Spencer Fellow on Education, reporting to examine why good suburban schools are failing black students.

NANCY SOLOMON: The hallways at Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey are a picture postcard of integration. Columbia is a well-funded school that's roughly 60 percent black and 40 percent white. The kids mix easily with a super-friendly vibe.

(Soundbite of chatter)

SOLOMON: But when the bell rings, students go their separate ways.

(Soundbite of chatter)

SOLOMON: This is Noel Cooperberg's repeat algebra class, a class of all minority kids who flunked last year. There are only about a dozen students. The school keeps lower-level classes small to try to boost success.

But a group of girls sitting in the middle never so much as pick up a pencil and disrupt the class throughout. It's an entirely different scene in Cooperberg's honors-level pre-calculus class, which has three times as many students and most of them are white.

Mr. NOEL COOPERBERG (Teacher): Let's take a couple of minutes and try to solve this.

SOLOMON: These two classes are pretty typical. Lower-level classes, called levels two and three, are overwhelmingly black, while four and five are mostly white. Students are assigned to these levels by a combination of grades, test scores and teacher recommendations.

Professor AMY STUART WELLS (Columbia University): You could look at the highest-achieving kid and the lowest-achieving kid and say, Oh my god, they're worlds apart. Right?

SOLOMON: The problem, says Amy Stuart Wells of Columbia University's Teachers College, is how kids in the vast middle are sorted. The racial segregation corresponds to the difference in average test scores between black and white students at the school and nationally. But Stuart Wells says racial stereotypes still play a role.

Prof. STUART WELLS: And what you're seeing in suburbia and how it's playing out along racial lines is testimony to the fact that race still matters quite a bit in this society and very much so in education.

SOLOMON: The two towns served by the school are diverse middle-class suburbs, although a third of the students are low-income and almost all of those kids are black. But a considerable number of the African-American students are middle and upper middle class.

Mr. HANEEF QUINN (Student): My name is Haneef Quinn. I was born and raised here. I'm 16 years old. I'm a very intellectual student. I think I'm really actually the smartest underachiever in Columbia High School.

SOLOMON: Haneef lives in a large house in a solidly middle-class neighborhood. He has two older siblings who've gone on to college, and he says his parents pushed him to do well. His freshman year, Haneef was placed at level four classes, one of a small group of African-American students.

Mr. QUINN: We kind of sat together, be the black kids over here and the white kids over here. It seemed like the teacher, she just stayed on the other side of the room away from us. The teacher focused on the larger group of whites and left us in the dust.

Ms. LOVIE LILLY (Principal): I've heard that so many times.

SOLOMON: Columbia principal Lovie Lilly, who is African-American, is troubled by the racial segregation in leveled classes. She says the levels do reflect differences in skill and work habits, but she believes race plays a part. Lilly conducted research on the experience of black students at her school while studying for her Ph.D.

Ms. LILLY: Black children in higher-level classes were ignored or perceived that they were being ignored, or they did not feel comfortable going to the teacher after school to get help. They gave up and decided to go to level three classes, where at least there were other black children.

SOLOMON: But this comfort comes with a penalty. Lower-level classes ask less of students, so they do less. The school district's new superintendent, Brian Osborne, who is white, says the lack of rigor in lower levels is his top priority for change.

Dr. BRIAN OSBORNE (Superintendent, Maplewood School District): The second day that I was here as superintendent I met with a group of middle school students for lunch. And I asked the students what are your teachers' expectations of you? And the very first thing that one of the students told me was, it depends what level you're in.

SOLOMON: The question Osborne has yet to answer is whether lower-level classes can hold students to higher standards or whether any sorting system sends the wrong message.

Mr. JERRY MORNVIL: That first day, you know, going to that class, we made a nickname for that class. We called it the retarded class.

SOLOMON: Jerry Mornvil, a recent graduate, remembers his level two class and how the low expectations affected the way students felt about themselves and about school.

Mr. MORNVIL: We were mad. A lot of kids, you know, were being rude to the teachers and stuff like that. That class was crazy. It was like every African-American or black ethnic friend I knew in my grade, they were all in that class.

SOLOMON: For the past 20 years, proposals to get rid of levels at the school have been defeated by the well-organized parents of highest-performing students, who tend to be affluent and white and who fear their kids will be slowed down by mixed-ability classes.

Teachers are also divided. Richard Moss is an African-American math teacher with 37 years of experience.

Mr. RICHARD MOSS (Teacher): I've done both. When you have kids mixed together, then you're gonna find that this group of kids at this level cannot work at the same level as someone else. Okay? So that it makes it difficult to organize, and then the frustration level increases at both ends.

SOLOMON: On the other side of this issue is Line Marshall, who teaches a demanding medieval literature class to a mixed group of kids from levels two, three and four. The class began as a scheduling mistake, but it turned out to work.

Ms. LINE MARSHALL (Teacher): Which of you is going to present the squire? Chenerl?

SOLOMON: Line Marshall is calling on Chenerl Sainte, who's been in level two classes since middle school. Yet here he is in Marshall's class, explaining the character of the squire in "The Canterbury Tales," and doing it well.

Mr. CHENERL SAINTE: He was a romancing guy.

Ms. MARSHALL: Great, Chenerl (unintelligible)...

I saw in the kids who wanted the opportunity a light open up. The kids who had been used to, I guess, doing very basic work, whose English classes for whatever reason hadn't been challenging, would come up to me and say, we've just never thought this way before. No one's ever asked us these questions before.

SOLOMON: Superintendent Brian Osborne is moving gingerly toward change. He's created a task force to study leveling in Maplewood. And he's hoping to convince parents that education is not a zero sum game, that the schools can boost the lowest performers while improving achievement for all.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon.

SIMON: And tomorrow in the second part of our series, we'll explore how race matters in the education of teenagers. Visit NPR.org to see audio slideshows about Columbia High School.

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