Arlington district helping more minorities take advanced courses

Christie Trinh, a senior at Sam Houston High School, has a pragmatic plan that resonates with many aspiring college students.

“My ultimate goal is to go to college and not spend a lot of money,” she said. Toward that end she began preparing to take advanced high school courses in eighth grade.

“I decided on civil engineering,” she said of her prospective college major. “My 10th-grade teacher thought it would be a great fit for me, and it is.”

Doreen Nyambuka, also a senior, was born in Kenya. She plans to attend TCU as a nursing major.

“I came to America in the sixth grade and they started telling me about the classes,” she said. “I started them the next year in seventh grade.”

Trinh and Nyambuka were proactive, but a gap often exists between disadvantaged and minority students and the kind of challenging courses that provide a clear pathway to higher education.

The Arlington district’s efforts to bridge that gap is getting national recognition. Superintendent Marcelo Cavazos and school board President Jamie Sullins attended a recent celebration in the White House where the district was recognized by Cabinet Secretary Broderick Johnson as one of 40 districts to excel in the Seattle-based nonprofit Equal Opportunity Schools program, and one of only a few districts to be represented on panels with Johnson’s staff.

Officials with the nonprofit say the access gap is common: 99 percent of all schools have it. Cavazos hopes the program will cut that gap in half in Arlington schools.

In Arlington, all high schools are involved, Cavazos said, “because that gap exists at every school.”

Reid Saaris, founder and chief executive of the nonprofit, visited Arlington recently and met with Cavazos and other school district leaders to discuss strategy.

Arlington is part of the nonprofit’s AP/IB Equity Excellence Project. The objective is to encourage students to take more challenging Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses that prepare them for college and help them qualify for financial aid.

The program is now in 22 states and had its Texas launch last year, Saaris said. Nationwide there are 240 active schools which have served 33,000 “missing” students, as Saaris characterized them.

“The Arlington district was one of the first in the state to qualify for it and make this a priority,” he said. “We think Arlington could represent the largest district in the country to represent student diversity.”

He credited “the quality of the district’s advanced classes and its commitment to equity, and the strength of the superintendent” as Arlington’s standout qualifiers for program participation.

The district found that 1,164 low-income and minority students participated in AP and IB programs, which was 30 percent of all 11th- and 12th-grade students in those demographics.

Forty percent of middle- and upper-income white and Asian students in 11th and 12th grades participated in these programs.

Administrators subsequently identified an additional 932 low-income and minority students for AP and IB courses and established an enrollment management team to assist in enrolling and supporting students.

Saaris himself was inspired by personal experience to dedicate himself to his cause.

“We had experiences of our best friend being sent off in a different path in high school,” he said. “He spent a decade and a half trying to make up for the time he lost on different paths.”

Saaris went on the fast track to Harvard for his undergraduate work, and Stanford for his graduate degree. His friend, who was equally gifted academically, has pieced together his education at two- and four-year public colleges while working.

Saaris saw the same situation with his own students when he taught in South Carolina.

Cavazos said he and other Arlington administrators were invited to a session with Equal Opportunity Schools and became very interested in the program and how easily it aligned with the district’s ongoing strategic plan.

“The Equal Opportunity Schools and its tools and resources act as accelerants to making sure students excel,” Cavazos said. “In just the first year, the students have responded very well.”

The program’s three-step strategy is to identify students who will succeed and benefit from more challenging coursework, invite them to participate and provide access for them to take the classes.

The district is now recruiting underrepresented students for the program’s second year. One recent morning at Sam Houston, Christopher Burke’s AP social studies class was learning about the U.S. judicial system.

Instead of listening to Burke doing the lecturing, students were watching a YouTube video lecture on their school-issued electronic devices.

“This is the YouTube generation,” Burke said. “This is how they receive information. “This is also the generation of instant feedback, so I will often pause the program and ask them questions. I can walk around and help facilitate the feedback. It’s more self-paced.”

Half of Burke’s students this year have never taken an AP class before. Yet, the new AP/IB Equal Opportunity Schools program has now filled four sections of his class with about 50 students each.

Principal Fernando Benavides said many Sam Houston students will be the first in their families to graduate from high school and the first to think about going to college.

“We want to identify all of these kids who have aspirations to go to college,” Benavides said. “I feel this is a way to widen the net.”

Sam Houston’s student body is 69 percent Hispanic, 20 percent African-American, 5 percent Anglo and 4 percent Asian.

Poppy Moore, IB coordinator and advanced academics teacher, is an active recruiter for her classes. She sits down with each prospective dual-credit, AP or IB student and looks at their transcript with them, and she visits eighth-grade classes and gives informational talks to get students thinking about what they could do in high school and how to prepare for rigorous classes early.

Incoming freshmen get another refresher on what to do to prepare for challenging academics ahead.

“I tell them, it’s graduation first, and then I’m going to get you into college,” Moore said.

Moore’s IB math studies classroom looks more like a lab or a student lounge in college, compared to Burke’s traditional classroom. Students move around and interacting with each other; some study individually and others work on paperwork like applying for scholarships or registering for courses.

“When they get in college, we want them not just to get accepted in college but to excel in college,” said Moore.

Half her students are taking the full IB diploma curriculum and the other half are taking just a few IB classes. They have tried out and been accepted into the classes.

“We already have 29 sophomores signed up and coming in next year,” Moore said.

“They can be successful, go to the colleges they never thought they could get into,” Moore said, “TCU, SMU, one graduated from Rice, we have one at Cambridge.”

It isn’t easy to manage demanding classwork, in addition to a job and sometimes family obligations. Still, “I ask them, ‘Was it worth it?’ ” said Moore. “They always say yes.”