2016-11-04 / Schools

High schools target ‘unlikely’ students for advanced classes

By Michael Aushenker

READY FOR RIGOR—Above left, senior Andrea Cortes shares a laugh with classmates during their AP government class Oct. 25 at Royal High School. At right, fellow senior Arianna Bell listens intently during the lecture. 
Photos by RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers READY FOR RIGOR—Above left, senior Andrea Cortes shares a laugh with classmates during their AP government class Oct. 25 at Royal High School. At right, fellow senior Arianna Bell listens intently during the lecture. Photos by RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers At Royal High School, Arianna Bell is earning a high B in her Advanced Placement government class. The 17-yearold recently visited the Reagan Library with her class to watch and discuss the final presidential debate last month.

Fellow Royal senior Andrea Cortes, also 17, is tackling two high-level courses: AP government and International Baccalaureate math studies. She recently scored A’s on her first two AP government unit tests.

“It’s been a great experience,” Andrea said, adding she feels prepared for college.

Minority students like Arianna, who is African American, and Andrea, who is Latina, are generally considered unlikely AP and IB pupils due to their ethnicities and lower-income backgrounds.

But such profiling is changing in the Simi Valley Unified School District as a result of its recent partnership with Equal Opportunity Schools, a not-for-profit organization devoted to closing the equity gap for demographically challenged students in academically rigorous AP and IB classes.

John Downey, the girls’ AP government teacher, said the partnership with EOS is off to a great start.

“The students so far are exceeding my expectations in ability and meeting my expectations where grit is concerned,” he said.

SVUSD unfurled EOS’ AP/ IB Equity & Excellence Project at Royal in 2015 and at Simi Valley High School last month in an effort to tap into a population of students who hadn’t before been targeted for advanced academic classes.

The partnership between the district and EOS began after Deborah Salgado, SVUSD’S director of secondary education, researched the nonprofit and reported back to Superintendent Jason Peplinski.

“I believe in equity and access for our students,” Peplinski said. “We have our very strong AP program, but we did notice there was an underrepresented population that maybe we’re not reaching.”

Prospective students

In September 2015 at Royal, administrators surveyed its 2,000 students and identified 240 who demonstrated one or more of the following criteria: students with college aspirations, students recommended by teachers, and non-AP/IB students with high grade point averages.

The school then performed outreach, meeting these students in small groups during lunch to discuss their goals, what AP and IB classes entail and the academic support available.

“For those students who were still on the fence (about enrolling in the high-level classes), we scheduled one-on-one meetings to help them see the benefits,” said Matthew Guzzo, Royal’s assistant principal of curriculum and instruction. “In most cases, the students just needed to hear from a trusted adult that they were very capable of being successful in these classes.”

Andrea was among those fence-sitters.

“The assistant principal said that teachers had recommended me,” she said. “At the time, I didn’t know anyone taking AP classes.”

Only the beginning

Guzzo said Royal is already seeing positive results.

Of the 240 prospective students identified last year, 138 enrolled in AP and IB classes as juniors and seniors this year.

Compared to last year, the district has seen the following gains in the numbers of students enrolling in AP classes among certain subgroups: 11 more low-income white/Asian students; 43 students from low-income Hispanic homes; 28 students from medium- or high-income Hispanic homes; five African-American students from medium- or high-income homes; and five low-income African- American students.

Guzzo praised Royal’s commitment to the EOS program.

“Many (teachers and staff) have dedicated several hours of their own time to help them,” he said.

Royal has also created a support plan: the Center for Academic Success, where EOS kids can engage in study sessions and peer mentoring.

This month, 324 prospective students have been identified for the 2017-18 school year. Administrators won’t know how many elect to take advanced classes until spring.

Peplinski said the enrollment of EOS students in AP and IB classes will not diminish the academic rigor of the advanced courses.

“The AP and IB tests don’t change. The expectations and the requirements are the same,” he said.

Andrea confirmed that kids who join AP and IB courses through the EOS process are expected to keep up in class.

“(Downey) doesn’t hold the whole class back (for EOS students),” she said.

Psychologically, teens will benefit from challenging themselves with advanced coursework, Peplinski said.

“They’re going to feel more academic and capable,” the superintendent said. “That’s how they’ll view themselves throughout their educational careers.”

Arianna and Andrea said they don’t feel like outsiders in their classes.

“I feel really comfortable in (AP government),” said Arianna, an aspiring veterinarian who now plans to take AP economics next semester.

Any qualms Andrea might have had about tackling advanced courses have dissipated.

“They’re really not that hard. I like those classes,” she said, adding that she regrets not taking them sooner.

Narrowing the margin

With the 138 teens plucked out of last year’s 240 prospective students, what of the other 102 potential students bypassing this year’s AP and IB classes?

Educators say the reasons teens gave for declining included trepidation about the amount of additional required work, fear of failure, and fear of not belonging among the dominant AP/IB demographics.

Peplinski said he realizes the challenges of fostering an atmosphere of inclusion, yet he believes the number of prospective students intimidated by AP and IB classes will shrink with the commitment of teachers and parents.

“It’s about creating a culture in the school,” he said. “That doesn’t happen (overnight).”

Downey said he hopes “the cultural expectations will change and we won’t have to go out and search” for students in the near future.

It’s still early for EOS. However, with Arianna maintaining a B average and Andrea earning A’s on tests, Downey believes one thing’s already clear.

“We’ve got a population of students that are outside of the AP culture who have every reason to be involved.”

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