Wanted: Non-Traditional Students for AP Classes

Wanted: Non-Traditional Students for AP Classes

On Friday, the College Board wrapped up its annual conference to promote Latino enrollment and achievement in college-prep programs: Prepárate.  A few years ago, I was part of the local planning committee for Prepárate’s Chicago conference.  This minority initiative emphasizes what many of us already know and what more need to recognize–students of color need to be enrolled in successful Advanced Placement classes.

Why is this so hard?  The easy answer–tradition.  AP classes have long been thought of as opportunities for students who are the academic exception.  For decades, these classes were reserved for select students who were thought intelligent enough, dedicated enough to handle the rigor of an AP classroom.  When I was a senior over twenty years ago at my Southwest Side Chicago high school, out of a class of about 220 students, nine of us were enrolled in AP English Literature.  Two were males: one was white; I was the other.

Almost twenty years later at a Chicago selective-enrollment high school, I learned about the College Board’s diversity initiatives.  They want districts to remove the gatekeeping practices that limit AP classes to the elite.  Our school’s administration at that time pushed us to examine our own school’s AP enrollment.  At department meetings for one week, our assistant principal revealed data that reinforced tradition: most of our AP students were white.

Some of us realized the need to increase AP access.  Others were offended we were having such conversations.  “She’s telling me I’m racist,” I remember one colleague saying.  “She’s saying it’s my fault no black kids are taking my class.”  That wasn’t what the school leader was saying at all.

The reasonable conclusion for some of us was that, despite our students’ history of academic achievement, they simply were not informed of the attainable value of an AP class.  Students from affluent or college-educated families, usually white, knew to take AP classes.  They knew these classes carried more weight on transcripts.  They knew these classes allowed students the chance to earn college credit.  They knew these classes were supposed to be harder.

Minority students who came from families with little or no college experience, however, considered AP classes as something “other kids” took, even at our selective-enrollment high school.  Or they simply didn’t know.  So in 2008, the school leader led a communication campaign to provide students and their families with information about AP.

During course selection time that year, we brought back AP English Language (a favorite of mine now because it focuses on non-fiction and images as text).  We allowed any rising senior who felt committed enough to take on the challenge to enroll.  The following year, we broke every stereotype.  I had one class with thirty-one students; the other with thirty-two.  For many of them, this was their first AP class.  Many had not been star students in past English classes.  For me, the course was new.

The year continued with excitement.  The students wanted to prove themselves to me; I wanted to prove myself to them.  Many of the students were black and brown.  Obama was trying to win the presidency.  We had all kinds of written, visual, and audio texts to examine.  That year, we set a school record: 71% of those 63 students earned a 3 or higher on the AP exam–qualifying many of them for college credit.  Eight students earned a 4.  Six earned a 5.

Critics will say, “Ray, but that was at a selective-enrollment high school.  Those kids are just smarter.”

While these students had a history of academic achievement, before this diversity initiative, only about 30-40% of the students earned a 3 or higher.  This was when only traditional students were enrolled in AP classes at that selective-enrollment high school.

The data table above might also lead readers to say, “Well, Hispanics make up the biggest group who took AP exams in CPS last year.  Why are you recruiting more minority students?”

While Hispanic AP enrollment is high in CPS, the performance needs to be higher.  Thirty-two percent of Hispanic AP students in Chicago proved minority students can succeed.  Other districts can use this as a model for change.  Hispanic achievement, however, was low with only 32% of students earning a 3 or higher.  Improved instruction and teacher development–especially at the pre-AP level–can address this.

Furthermore, I wonder if the AP Spanish Language and Literature enrollment pushes Latino enrollment numbers higher.  Latinos in Spanish classes is traditional.  Latinos in AP English, math, and science is not. I requested the racial breakdown by subject from CPS.  Hopefully, that’s available.

Also, white students only make up about 9% of the CPS student population but made up 17% of the students in AP classes last year.  I don’t want to keep white or affluent students out of AP.  Their enrollment numbers prove that awareness matters.

Finally, according to the College Board’s College Completion Agenda 2011 Progress Report, in 2009, only 19.2 percent of Latino 25- to 34-year-olds had attained an associate degree or higher — less than half the national rate. The national average is 41.1 percent, with 69.1 percent of Asian, 48.7 percent of white and 29.4 percent of African American 25- to 34-year-olds attaining an associate degree or higher.

AP classes can be the port of entry for Latino students’ college success.  Chicago’s minority AP enrollment proves that minority students across the country can and should be informed about and enrolled in the College Board’s programs.

This year, I worked with twenty-four non-traditional students in AP English Language on Chicago’s Southwest Side.  At the start, they were trying to prove themselves to me; I was trying to prove myself to them. They’re all Latino; at least one is undocumented.   I’ll find out their scores in July.  I don’t know how many will score a 3 or higher but I know–they know–they are better writers who are prepared for their college writing classes.

After teaching AP English Language for three years, I promote the value of pushing more students into AP.  To our district’s credit, Chicago Public Schools continues working to increase minority enrollment and teachers’ preparation for these classes.  Having qualified teachers for these non-traditional students is a whole other challenge that needs serious attention.

For decades, teachers inappropriately organized AP classes around an unbearable workload and rigid expectations.  I realized that the work load doesn’t have to be overwhelming.  Too many teachers focused AP coursework on breadth over depth.  But the deeper my students and I go into argumentation, satire, and logic, for example, the more enduring the learning becomes.

I focus my curriculum on complex texts related to current events.  My students don’t get exposed to many 19th or early 20th-century texts.  So what?  If they become better writers and thinkers in today’s complicated context, they’re better prepared to examine and evaluate information from any era.  Besides developing their academic competence, I develop their confidence.

At the school level, teachers need to look at their AP enrollment by race and gender.  This is the time to ask or push to students to consider enrolling in an AP class or two next school year.

If schools are to become open minded about AP enrollment, if districts are to prepare teachers to succeed in AP classes, the College Board needs to continue its diversity initiatives.  Aside from Prepárate, The Dream Deferred program focuses on increasing African American success.  The Native American Advocacy Institute addresses another group’s educational challenges.  There’s even one solely dedicated to the educational crisis facing young men of color.

I also want to challenge the College Board to merge their advocacy programs more explicitly with their annual conference this July in Florida.  Like the minority students who need to be included in AP classes, their diversity programs need to be an elemental part of the College Board’s traditional national conference.

I believe in the College Board’s commitment to non-traditional students.  But it’s almost as if their diversity programs are like the students who get help sometimes, in another classroom, down that hall, where not everybody goes.


What experiences or suggestions can you offer to increase AP access and success for more students?

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    I'm glad you talked about the importance of awareness. I am white, non-Hispanic, but I was the first in my family to attend college. I had no idea about AP courses or college preparedness in general. Students who do not come from families in the know need to have this information handed to them.

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