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How one Iowa high school is teaching more students in Advanced Placement classes

More students of color taking classes than before at Iowa City's West High

Oct 30, 2019 at 8:30 am
    Travis Henderson explains a concept to his students during one of his AP psychology classes at Iowa City West High School in Iowa City, Iowa. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

    The quiz was a deception.

    It was rigged, Travis Henderson eventually told his students, to illustrate how memory recall happens in the brain. He read nonsensical sentences aloud.

    Half the students drew up mental images of them and the other half thought only about their pronunciation. Students who had been instructed to visualize the content aced the quiz — a lesson their Advanced Placement psychology teacher said would serve them well in other West High classes, as well as colleges and universities.

    In previous years, the lesson reached only students considered Iowa City’s top scholars — most of them white or Asian-American teenagers with well-connected parents and wealthy backgrounds.

    Social perceptions dissuaded many students from enrolling in the college-level AP course, Henderson said, although there were few institutional barriers to enrolling.

    “I think this class has a reputation for being for ‘that kind’ of student,” Henderson said. “If I’m a student of color who has not been told frequently that I’m good enough or I’m smart enough, then I’m definitely not signing up for that.”

    Administrators and teachers began efforts two years ago to change the demographics of their AP courses — work that has resulted in the highest number ever of West students enrolled in the advanced classes this school year.

    “Rather than just saying anybody can play, we went to students and pulled them in,” West Principal Gregg Shoultz recalled. “That was the change in philosophy.”

    Celebrating a test score drop

    Some students’ aversion to Advanced Placement classes became obvious to teachers like Henderson, who saw more and more racial, ethnic and economic diversity in the hallways but continued to teach only one or two students of color per semester.

    “I don’t think a school is succeeding if it’s not serving everyone in the building to reach their postsecondary goals,” he said. “And we have a very high percentage of students who are going to college, so we should have a high percentage of students who are taking college preparatory courses.”

    Two years ago, about 22 percent of West students took AP classes and the school had a 93 percent pass rate on AP tests, which students have to pass with a score of 3 or higher to receive college credit.

    By last spring, 44 percent of students were in AP classes. The school’s pass rate dropped to 83 percent.

    Shoultz, though, said the changes still are worth celebrating.

    “If you take an AP class — and don’t even get a 3 or above, you’re just in the class and in a college-level environment — you’re more likely to go to college,” Shoultz said. “There’s no shame in (not passing the test) if you push yourself.”

    The school’s pass rate still is well-above the national average, he added, and the drop in scores also could be explained by a change in the test’s signup deadline. Students had to pay for exams in the fall, rather than the spring, so some students who otherwise would have opted-out of the tests but had already paid $94 could have felt obligated to take them.

    “We’d rather have the kids in the class and in that college-level experience,” Shoultz said. “Because now they see themselves differently, they see themselves as college students.”

    Participation’s effects

    The AP Index — reported by the University of Iowa’s Belin Blank Center for Gifted Education & Talent Development — has long valued a high school’s AP participation rate over its pass rate. The index ranks Iowa schools solely on that participation rate.

    West is ranked fifth on the 2019 index.

    Regardless of a student’s performance, just being in an AP class can build study skills and teach students to handle learning challenges, said Kristin Flanery, Belin Blank’s communications administrator.

    “A lot of students taking AP courses are the ‘smart students,’ so to speak, who maybe have found previous coursework has come easy to them,” Flanery said. “They haven’t had to develop study skills or an attitude of perseverance if it doesn’t just come easy. It’s a chance to encounter those sorts of situations but in an environment that is very supportive still, rather than just sending them off to the world once they get to college and wishing them luck.”

    While stereotypes of an AP student have blocked students in urban West High from classes, rural schools long have struggled with providing the classes to students at all, Flanery said.

    “Across the country, not just in Iowa, rural areas tend not to have as much access and resources as more urban or suburban areas,” she said. “The AP program in general, not just the exam, is the first step toward providing more access to opportunities for Iowa students.”

    The AP Index was borne out of a mission to increase access in rural and suburban schools, she said, and goes hand in hand with the Belin Blank Center’s Iowa Online AP Academy, which provides students with online AP classes, and its Teacher Training Institute, which trains Iowa teachers to teach AP classes.

    The Online AP Academy started in 2001. Last school year, about 370 high school students took AP courses through it. About 580 students altogether — including middle school students who took high school level classes — participated from 119 Iowa school districts.

    Breaking the stereotype

    Two years ago, Eliseo Aguirre, who’s now 18, didn’t think AP courses were for him.

    The son of Mexican immigrants, he’s spent his senior year trying to keep up with homework, working in the kitchen of a North Liberty diner and watching enviously as his younger sister earns stellar grades at their high school.

    Part of his workload this school year comes from AP physics, a course he hadn’t planned to take as a 16-year-old, despite an interest in astronomy.

    That shifted after a conversation with a trusted teacher — Henderson.

    “It was a long time ago,” he said, trying to recall the substance of their meeting. He remembers the teacher recommending he set himself up for AP physics by taking advanced math courses and other sciences in his junior year.

    During the chat with Henderson, he said, he changed his mind about AP classes being too hard.

    The conversation is vivid in Henderson’s memory.

    “It was like out of a book, it seems fictional,” Henderson recalled. “He said, ‘No one’s ever told me that they believed I could do that.’ ”

    In partnership with Seattle-based Equal Opportunity Schools, West administrators and teachers identified around 250 students who would be good candidates for AP classes but who, for whatever reason, were not enrolling.

    They paired that information with student surveys that, among other questions, asked students to name an adult at West they trusted. Those adults set out to check in with the students and encourage them to try an AP class.

    “I can see why people think that it’s for the ‘top kids’ and all that, I can see that,” Aguirre said. “That changed real quick for me.”

    Equal Opportunity Schools data show the number of West High students of color, and the number of low-income students who took an AP test for the first time last school year, has increased, along with overall participation.

    The data showed just eight students were first-time AP test-takers in the 2017-18 school year.

    Last spring, that number jumped to 39.

    “That’s the power of what we’re doing,” Henderson said. “That kid had been missed by the system for whatever reason — maybe it was the color of his skin, maybe it was assumptions people made about his background, maybe it’s the sound of his name. But he had been missed, and he’s sitting there with all this brilliance and potential.

    “It just took the kind of conversation — that some of our more privileged students are getting all the time — to make a huge difference.”

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