Alesha Beatty had her doubts when her seventh-grade teacher recommended she sign up for pre-Advanced Placement classes.
“Honestly I was freaking out. I thought, ‘I don’t think I’m smart enough to do it,’ but she told me I had to try and then, after the first six weeks, I got my report cart and I was doing well,” said the incoming senior at Arlington High School, who now takes a full load of AP classes.
“It’s a lot of work and I felt like if I was up for the challenge I could do it, and I’ve been pretty successful.”
Arlington school officials hope a recent collaboration with a national group will help other students — especially those from minority and low-income families — experience the same level of achievement.
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In May, the district announced that it had been selected from almost 300 applicants for one of 120 spots in the AP/IB Equity & Excellence Project. Through the new collaboration, the Seattle-based group Equal Opportunity Schools will provide technical assistance over the next year to help the district identify barriers to minority and low-income students’ enrollment in AP and International Baccalaureate courses.
AP classes involve rigorous course work that can lead to college credit if a student scores well on a nationally recognized test. IB is a lesser-known but also challenging curriculum program that builds higher education skills and can lead to college credit.
The Google Global Impact Awards and researchers at the Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard University provide support for Equal Opportunity Schools. The Equity & Excellence Project includes “expert leadership coaching, deep data analysis and best practices in strategic planning.”
Arlington Superintendent Marcelo Cavazos said the program fits well with the district’s Achieve Today/Excel Tomorrow strategic plan. It calls for all students to have access to rigorous courses, he said.
“This project provides the tools to insure that students who have the potential and who have the interest are actually served in our advanced courses. This partnership allows us to utilize those tools to train teachers and staff in identifying students and serving them in advanced coursework,” he said.
Filling in the gap
According to the Equal Opportunity Schools website, the group’s analysis of national data shows that about 640,000 students from African-American, Latino or low-income families miss out on AP and IB enrollment each year, even though they could handle the rigor.
The data Arlington and Equal Opportunity Schools used to set a benchmark for the new Arlington program focuses on AP classes. Currently, 1,674 students of color and low-income students in 11th and 12th grades participate in Advance Placement classes, according to the district. That’s about 30 percent of the student population from those groups. In contrast, about 40 percent of middle- and upper-income Anglo and Asian students in 11th and 12th grades take AP classes.
Steven Wurtz, the district’s chief academic officer, said the district has been looking for ways to address that gap since fall.
“It’s not that the access isn’t available. The access is available. It’s that for some reason we have some students who are choosing … not to participate,” Wurtz said.
Wurtz said the first challenge will be identifying why the inequity exists.
“Our task with EOS is trying to investigate what we believe are the root causes for that lack of enrollment and then put strategies in place to solve those problems,” he said.
To participate in the Equal Opportunity Schools program, the district will pay the organization $21,000 per school and $21,000 for the district. Wurtz said the fee shows the district’s commitment to improvement. Over the next year, representatives from Equality Opportunity Schools will work with each school to come up with a customized plan, he said.
A goal of the new program is to add almost 1,000 minority and low-income students to AP enrollment by fall 2016.
Wurtz said some students may have had trouble in past classes, perhaps because of life circumstances, and they’re not sure they’re up for the challenge of AP classes. Also, he said, teachers may need more training in identifying students who could be successful in the more rigorous classes.
D’Angelo Flores, a 2015 graduate of Bowie High School, completed the district’s IB program and will head to Texas A&M University in the fall. He believes that students may not enroll in AP and IB classes because of misconceptions or rumors that the rigorous courses will leave little time for anything else.
“It seemed like they were intimidated by the workload and how much they had to put into it. A lot of them were afraid to go for it,” said Flores, who played soccer, was in several clubs and worked a part-time job. “That’s one of the biggest misconceptions of IB. If they could see how we live our lives, they could see you really do learn how to balance it all.”
Alisa Simmons, president of the Arlington chapter of the NAACP, said the AP/IB Equity & Excellence Project presents a great ideology, but she has questions about how the district will identify the students to enroll in AP classes and what measures will support their success. She said efforts to close academic achievement gaps between student groups must continue at every grade level.
Those efforts “must begin before high school,” she said. “Otherwise, these students who they want to put in AP classes will be set up for failure,” Simmons said.
Simmons said families in the district sometimes don’t know what advanced academics are available. That information should be better communicated, she said. Teachers also must embrace the project’s goals for it to work.
“If they don’t diligently seek to identify students for the program, then it’s for naught,” Simmons said. “So then the question becomes, If teachers were not identifying students for the program before, what will lead them to do it now?”
Kaila Wherry, a recent Seguin High School graduate and past NAACP Youth Council president, said she’s been pleased to see the school district doing more in recent years to reach out to community groups such as the NAACP. She said the new program is another step in the right direction.
Wherry took AP and dual credit classes and will enter Texas Tech University this fall with 24 college credits. “I knew those [college classes] are things I would eventually have to pay for, and if I can just do it now I could get it over with,” she said.
Wherry agreed with Simmons that any effort to increase student enrollment in rigorous classes must include consistent support, with guidance and information readily available throughout the school year. School officials also could foster success by helping students find ways to balance schoolwork and other commitments, she said.
Cavazos acknowledged that better access to information about Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes and their benefits could help students and parents.
He’s hoping the new initiative will add to the district’s efforts to ensure that all students are achieving their potential. As examples of those ongoing efforts, he cited the college-readiness program AVID, or Advancement Via Individual Determination, and a required eighth-grade class created by the district called Career, Technical and Higher Education Investigations.
Cavazos said Equal Opportunity Schools will help the district seek out promising students and “not leave their participation in advanced course work to chance.”
“From our standpoint, it’s a combination of efforts because there’s not one simple reason that students don’t participate in advanced courses,” he said.