Deniese Fahnbulleh was already taking honors classes at Winnetonka High School when she decided to challenge herself with three Advanced Placement courses.
“It was the next step,” said Fahnbulleh, a junior who participates in cheer, golf and student council. “My friend and I enrolled together because we thought it would be a great opportunity to get the feeling of college classes.”
AP has expanded far beyond the elite prep schools where it began. Nearly 40% of high school students now take at least one AP exam, up from 25% a decade ago. The tests are administered by the College Board in subjects like literature, language, biology, chemistry and physics, and students who score high enough can get college credit.
But access to AP classes is uneven, particularly for underrepresented minorities.
“There’s a lot of implicit bias that exists where certain kids are assumed not to be an AP kid,” said Suneal Kolluri, a researcher at the University of Southern California. “Concentrated outreach to students who might not have been thinking about AP can make a significant difference. A lot of it is that relationship with the teacher who reaches out and says, ‘I think you can do this. I know you can do this. Why don’t you give it a shot?’”
That’s exactly the kind of encouragement educators in the North Kansas City Schools are trying to provide students like Fahnbulleh.
Equity plans in practice
Many school districts are creating equity and inclusion policies to ensure all kids have access to opportunities. It’s work that’s sometimes misunderstood, according to Winnetonka Principal Eric Johnson.
“People tend to look at equity as fairness or equality, but equity is about positioning the people who need it the most to get them what they need,” Johnson said.
Improving access to AP classes is only a small part of the equity and inclusion work the district is undertaking, but Winnetonka shows how these plans can work in practice. First, Johnson had his staff look at the data. In 2015-16, 40% of Winnetonka students were nonwhite, but black and Hispanic students made up only about 20% of AP students in the district
“It’s traditionally upper-middle-class students, white and Asian students, who are taking AP courses,” Johnson said.
As far as Johnson is concerned, it wasn’t so much a participation gap as an opportunity gap, and it shortchanged students of color.
Now Winnetonka uses a screening tool to identify students who could probably succeed in AP classes but weren’t taking them. It plugs them into subjects that align with their interests. If they like their classes, they’re more likely to persist, Johnson explained.
And in three years, black enrollment in AP classes district-wide has increased 50 percent, and Hispanic enrollment has doubled.
New AP students
Fahnbulleh, who wants to study psychology, decided to take AP Language, AP Government and AP Seminar, which teaches students how to form critical arguments while delving into topics that interest them.
“What about why people think they’re not good enough, why they try to look like other people?” Fahnbulleh said, explaining to classmate Ramla Ahmed she wanted to write her research paper about the effect of social media posts. Students in AP Seminar upload the work they do in class to the College Board for scoring.
“You mean like body image?” Ahmed asked. “Here,” she said, sharing an article she’d found about bullying with Fahnbulleh. “It’s a good topic, and I know you’re passionate about it.”
Fahnbulleh says she’s doing pretty well in her AP classes, though it’s sometimes hard to keep up with all the work. She’s in a college readiness program known as AVID that helps low-income and minority students become the first in their family to go to college. Carrie Marcantonio, who teaches AP Seminar, steers new-to-AP students toward AVID as well.
“We ask kids to take on a risk by taking an honors class if they've never done honors before, and if they've done honors before, then to try an AP class,” Marcantonio said. “But in doing so, we know that they also need some more structure and support.”
That’s where AVID comes in.
“We do binder checks, which keeps us really organized, and we learn how to take notes,” Fahnbulleh said. “What has been hard is my procrastination. What has been easy, I have AVID to help me keep myself organized.”
Kolluri, the USC researcher, says getting students of color into AP classes is just the first step. High schools also need to support students who are doing college-level coursework for the first time. There are two approaches he likes. The first is to emphasize test prep. The second is to adopt culturally relevant teaching practices, which is what North Kansas City is doing.
“You’re looking for opportunities for students to see themselves represented in the curriculum,” Kolluri explained.
That’s why North Kansas City Schools has made diversity training the cornerstone of its equity and inclusion work. Johnson, the Winnetonka principal, is one of the trainers. He said for some, the training is cathartic. They’ve wanted to have an honest conversation about race, class and privilege for a long time. It takes others longer to accept that they might have some implicit biases they need to examine.
“This work is not to browbeat anybody, and it’s not to make anyone feel bad or guilty but to bring it to our consciousness so we can do better,” Johnson said.
He considers himself lucky because there hasn’t been a lot of pushback as the district has expanded AP access. That’s happened elsewhere, and it’s actually common, Kolluri said. White, middle-class parents often want to protect their children’s privileged access.
“I think there’s this concern among parents, ‘Oh man, you’re making the curriculum dumb, you’re bringing in the riff-raff,’” Kolluri said. “But that doesn’t seem to be the case. The kids who wouldn’t have been there get a huge bump, and the kids who were going to be there anyway were not harmed.”
Nationally, scores on AP tests have gone down as the number of test takers has gone up. But the impact on white students has been minimal. Between 1997 and 2012, even as scores dropped for black and Hispanic students – by 6.8 and 18.3 percentage points, respectively – pass rates for white students remained largely unchanged.
That means many of those fears are unfounded, Kolluri said. That was his experience, too, as a high school social studies teacher in California schools for a decade.
“I’ve seen that when students step into a room that is an AP room where there are high expectations, they live up to them,” he said.
Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.