According to Equal Opportunity Schools, an organization that partners with school districts to build student equity in advanced academic programs, specifically Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses: “More than three-quarters of a million students in U.S. high schools are qualified for but are missing from AP and IB classes. These students are disproportionately low-income and/or students of color.” This statistic recalls an image from four years ago during my first days of teaching an AP Language and Composition course. Although my high school comprises over 50% free and reduced lunch recipients and 40% non-white students, the view from the front of the room was strikingly homogeneous: a sea of overwhelmingly white faces.
Growing a Diverse AP Program
Working with Equal Opportunity Schools and utilizing funding from a College Spark Grant, our school made great gains in achieving equitable representation of all subgroups in our AP courses. We do this through a variety of approaches. We invite students to AP course information sessions and during registration, we adorn the halls with catchy flyers advertising specific AP courses. Teachers whom students identified as trusted adults hold personal conversations with kids, describing the opportunities available in the AP world. We host AP Roadshows, evening events that showcase our AP offerings to students and parents. I personally visit multiple classrooms to pitch the AP courses I teach.
The payoff is huge. This year, over 42% of our AP students come from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds. This transformation in population is not just obvious from a front-of-the-classroom visual standpoint, but also in the classroom discourse. Our conversations are deeply enriched by voices from multiple perspectives.
Meeting the Needs of the New AP Student
This rapid shift has also led to what my principal refers to as “growing pains.” Historically, AP students generally fit a predictable mold: they are confident learners, they are responsible students motivated by grades, they have strong familial support systems who prioritize education, and they are compliant—completing mountains of homework simply because they are instructed to do so. Now, AP teachers face more challenges that teachers of core-level classes regularly encounter. The New AP Student often arrives with attendance issues, a home situation not conducive to homework completion, and a lack of soft skills–including the ability to organize and prioritize. AP classes typically move more quickly and have a more intensive workload than non-advanced courses, a fact that only exacerbates these challenges. Further, AP instructors who are used to prepared, compliant, and non-complaining pupils can feel frustrated and at a loss for effective strategies to support the New AP Student.
“When you grow an AP program, one of the challenges is to make sure you grow a strong support system for teachers and students as your program enrollment increases.”
My principal explains, “When you grow an AP program, one of the challenges is to make sure you grow a strong support system for teachers and students as your program enrollment increases.” Just as the New AP Student needs to develop grit in order to effectively approach new situations and overcome setbacks, so does the AP teacher need to rethink their approach to classroom culture and choices about curriculum and delivery. According to our school’s survey results, common reasons for students to resist taking an AP course include not feeling welcomed in an AP class setting, not feeling academically prepared for AP coursework, and not receiving adult encouragement to enroll in AP classes.
This means that AP teachers need to deliberately build more scaffolding, initiate more conversations with parents and guardians, clearly delineate expectations and procedures, and work with building and district staff to provide additional supports and resources.
Not There Yet
At my building, we implement several support systems, with varying degrees of success. These systems include after-school AP support classes, AP summer-kickoff events, and AP Saturday School sessions. Many of us are still struggling to find effective ways to boost achievement for the New AP Student; I was disheartened when eight of my students transferred to core-level English courses this semester. Due to severe attendance issues, anxiety from the increased workload, or vast gaps in skills and knowledge, some students are not quite ready for an AP English class…yet. However, I am encouraged by our gains thus far, and I know that with continued effort and the right mindset, we will get there.
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