When I arrived as superintendent for the Columbia, Mo., Public Schools in 2009, I was glad to hear the district had what the school board considered a great Advanced Placement program. The two large high schools, each with 2,000-plus students, offered more than 20 AP courses, and a remarkable 82 percent of participating students had passed their corresponding AP tests.
During tours of the schools, though, I noticed a lack of diversity in AP classes, especially compared to our student population, which was 32 percent non-white. Upon further research, I learned few low-income students participated in Advanced Placement courses.
Because the rigor of a student’s high school curriculum is a key factor both in college admissions and in completion of a college degree, a truly great AP program would be one that maintained high achievement and ensured students of all race and income groups participate at the same rate as their peers. That’s what I wanted for students.
A Problematic Pattern
The enrollment pattern greatly troubled and challenged me. I had to face the fact that many students of color or from low-income homes had dreams of college, a decent-paying job that allowed them to support a family and a bright future, but too many of these students were not getting access to the curriculum that best prepared them to enroll in and complete college.
Statistics proved illuminating. Two compelling facts made clear the goal and the problem:
College graduates’ earning power is at least two-times greater than students with a high school diploma. It is a lifetime of difference
Fully 99 percent of diverse high schools with established AP programs have course enrollments that seriously underrepresent students from low-income families and students of color, according to research by Equal Opportunity Schools and The Education Trust.
I recognized our practices were limiting access to AP courses for some students based on adult beliefs and traditional institutional barriers.
I deemed the situation required urgent attention. Thus began a journey to build commitment to equity and structures that identify, recruit and support “missing” children, those who were underrepresented in challenging classes. My audacious goals were to change the sense of what’s possible and break the cycle of low expectations of teachers, students and parents. It involved reframing the struggle, demystifying what great AP teaching looked like and developing a safe place for dissent and discussion upon the difficult topics of race and oppression.
Fortunately, we had excellent AP teachers.
Moving Into Action
My district’s leadership team met with the high school principals and agreed we needed to address the AP participation gap. Our first attempt involved a book study of Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
combined with some contracted equity training for the administrative team. We felt positive about our efforts but did not see substantial changes in access to or enrollment in AP courses the following school year.
How many times have we as administrators grown frustrated talking
about specific tasks and projects without seeing change for students — especially our most underserved students? I asked myself, “What would it mean if we committed to transforming access now for students who are chronically underrepresented in AP?”
I knew I had to take a stronger stand when I learned other superintendents around the country had closed their AP participation gaps in a single year. Wenatchee Public Schools in Washington closed access gaps to their schools’ AP courses during a single year and saw an increase in pass rates. Similarly, Corona-Norco Unified School District in Norco, Calif., had created equal access to AP courses across their six high schools and maintained their passing rates.
These cases suggested that Columbia’s low-income students and students of color who were missing from AP would be capable of the advanced work if we just gave them a fair shot. Could Jaime Escalante’s idea that “students will rise to the level of expectations” stand up in contradiction to the pervasive sense in so many of our schools that black and brown students are — by the time they get to high school — less capable of academic excellence? I believed this to be true and set off to find resources to help address our equity access gap.
The school district applied to partner with Equal Opportunity Schools, a nonprofit firm in Seattle, Wash., dedicated to ensuring all students have equal access to the most academically intense high school programs to tackle the participation gap. EOS had won a recent Google Global Impact Award to offer match-funded partnerships in new school districts. They are national experts in finding “missing students” and enabling leaders to achieve equitable access in advanced academic programs. We were selected as a match-funded partner district and developed an action plan for the next school year.
The work was rife with challenges. Some teachers and other staff felt we were moving too fast and that some students we had identified as capable of taking an AP class would fail or were not ready for the rigor of the various AP courses. Others suggested we would be lowering the pace and intensity of the AP courses. There was even concern expressed about harming a student’s GPA and college scholarship opportunities.
Furthermore, I was hearing that a lot of the missing students we had identified (through detailed surveys, academic record analysis and teacher recommendations) did not want to sign up for AP. This almost derailed the infrastructure work my team implemented as outlined in our action plan. At this point, I wondered if the students felt unwelcomed and afraid. I also wondered how the adults were interacting with the students during the recruitment discussions. Frustration was setting in.
I met alone with our designated partnership director from Equal Opportunity Schools, and she shared this was a common barrier that other schools experienced. She suggested we pivot the message slightly and involve other trusted adults in the school to engage with the students.
I sent a district staff member who had a trusted working relationship with underrepresented students to re-engage with those who had declined to enroll in AP. The staff member succeeded in getting 90 percent of the students who had previously declined to say they would enroll in an AP class. It was about coming back to students, bringing new messaging and ideas, inspiring them to step up and challenge themselves, while we showed belief in their abilities.
Through this re-engagement, we learned some students were anxious and felt they did not belong in AP courses. Others just needed additional encouragement and deeper discussions before they felt comfortable enough to enroll.
During the partnership, we found that 90 percent of our students — of every race and income group — wanted to go to college. We found many did not achieve their goal of graduating college within six years of high school completion because low-income students and students of color were seldom challenged by rigor in their classes. In fact, nationally, only a paltry 15 percent of the low-income students and students of color who are not in AP classes report being challenged by their high school classes.
We spend so much time talking about what students — especially underserved students — could not do, and far too little time creating the opportunities for them to prove us wrong.
My partnership director with Equal Opportunity Schools discussed the breakthrough that can occur when student diversity is reflected at the highest levels of K-12 schooling.
At a summer conference, students of color and those from low-income families shared stinging comments and a sense of self-doubt about whether they “belonged” in AP based on negative feedback from staff and the unwelcoming culture of an all-white AP classroom. A student vividly recalled that a counselor believed they might not be able to handle AP. Another student told how uncomfortable it felt to walk into an AP classroom and find no one looked like them: Classmates and the teachers acted as if they were in the wrong place.
I have seen so much data through current literature and news coverage, training sessions and peer discussions that I knew more than enough to believe in “missing” students’ ability to succeed — if we as educators eliminated barriers and provided systematic encouragement.
Ultimately, following some conflict, we closed the racial access gaps to AP courses in a single year. We had to allay the concerns of those AP teachers who feared the pass rate would drop and some counselors who questioned the readiness of students for the rigorous AP curriculum. We also knew some recruited students were worried about the impact on their GPA.
As a result, we added mandatory, ongoing academic support. Overall, we had an increase of 238 low-income students and students of color enroll in AP, quadrupling the number of low-income African-Americans in the courses.
In the end, the teachers gave strong support to the first-time AP students and the students performed comparably to their peers. One principal said: “In the end, it was mostly about changing adult mindsets. I felt confident once students overcame their own doubts and the teachers showed an unwavering belief in them, the ultimate result would be transformational. I was not disappointed. When we challenged students at the highest level and supported them with great teaching, they met our expectations.”
The prior year’s passage rate — defined as scoring a three or higher on the AP exam at course end — of 82 percent remained statistically unchanged despite the wider enrollment.
Academic intervention time was provided for all students, with recruited AP students being assigned intervention time with an AP teacher. Organizational and study skills strategies and connection with an adult mentor were used to assist the student in achieving and maintaining early success. Additionally, none of the recruited students were allowed to drop the AP class without meeting with the principal to talk through their struggles. The principal sought to remedy the concern, provided motivation and encouragement and reinforced the value of taking rigorous coursework.
Several AP teachers who had been vocally opposed to this strategy stopped by my office once the test results were posted and thanked me for pushing this initiative forward, challenging their mindset. They described how their perception of high expectations for students had changed.
It would be hard to overstate what this work meant. Personally, it was one of the most meaningful academic experiences of my career.
I’ve continued this work over the past three years as the superintendent-in-residence for Equal Opportunity Schools, the same organization that opened my eyes to the impact of full-gap closure in classroom equity on students and administrators. I appreciate now more than ever the challenge of achieving equity at the highest levels. EOS and The Education Trust have discovered 640,000 missing students each year in our country, stuck literally across the high school hallway from the education they need and deserve.
I have observed an incredible commitment to equity in colleagues nationwide. School, district and state education leaders have found nearly 50,000 missing students and advocated for those students until they had access to their schools’ most rigorous courses. In 75 percent of schools, the success rate on the college-level AP tests has remained stable or increased — showing that this work is not about solving an achievement gap that lives in our students. It’s about our leadership and willingness to close the opportunity gap — a gap as close as the nearest high school and only as wide as its hallway.
Education leaders can make this choice at any time. But for our current 11th-grade students, any later than this year would be too late.
is assistant teaching professor at the University of Missouri and superintendent in residence for Equal Opportunity School in Seattle, Wash. E-mail:
Equal Opportunity Schools is a nonprofit organization based in Seattle, Wash., that works with schools, districts and states to close enrollment gaps among students in their Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs. The organization works with education leaders to locate their “missing students” so that AP and IB programs fully reflect the student body in those schools. EOS has worked with 450 individual schools, 152 school districts in 27 states. Further details are at