AP calculus Credit: John Booz

As a freshman at Kennedy High in Garfield Ridge, Rocio Barba knew she was good at math and thought she might become a computer technician. Now she’s valedictorian for the Class of 2004, heading to the University of Chicago next fall and planning to major in math. Her eventual goal is to become an engineer.

Rocio credits the six Advanced Placement courses she’s taken at Kennedy with helping her set her sights on a top-notch university and a more demanding career. Kennedy began making a concerted effort four years ago to expand AP course offerings, recruit prospective students and prepare them for challenging coursework. “I was in favor of the push. Kids need to be challenged.” says Principal Fanchion Blumenberg, under whose leadership AP course offerings at Kennedy quadrupled from three to 12.

Kennedy’s push is in line with a district-wide drive by Chicago Public Schools to help close the achievement gap by giving students of color in neighborhood schools more access to Advanced Placement and other strong curricula, including the International Baccalaureate program (see related story). As a result, Chicago is now a national leader in expanding access to AP, according to the College Board, which administers the Advanced Placement program.

Better college preparation

“We’re seeing amazing, amazing things in Chicago—growth far outstripping other urban districts,” says Trevor Packer, the Board’s executive director for AP.

Jack Harnedy, academic enhancement officer for CPS, says the system wants to expand AP in neighborhood schools to push kids to prepare for college and make those schools more attractive academically. “The research was always telling us that most kids do better when they have access to those courses,” Harnedy says. “The tougher classes you take, the better off you’re going to be in college.”

Despite CPS’ success, racial disparities are still a problem. While African American and Latino students have dramatically increased their participation in AP, black students continue to lag behind other racial and ethnic groups and remain disproportionately under-represented in AP participation.

Between 1998 and 2003, the number of Latino and African American students taking AP exams increased by 227 percent and 176 percent respectively, according to the College Board. Those figures compare with national increases of 143 percent for Latinos and 111 percent for African Americans during the same period.

However, black students in Chicago comprise only 25 percent of test-takers, far below their 52 percent share of high schools enrollment, according to Catalyst’s analysis of College Board data on test-takers and CPS enrollment data. In comparison, Hispanics make up 32 percent of test-takers and 34 percent of high school enrollment.

One reason black students are behind is access. Catalyst’s analysis of courses at the 56 high schools that offered AP classes in 2003 shows predominantly black high schools had the fewest AP courses.

Schools that are majority-black offered an average of five AP classes, compared to an average of six in majority-Latino high schools and 14 in schools with integrated enrollment, Catalyst found. And in those integrated schools—typically selective-admissions and magnet schools with stronger academic offerings—African American students comprise only 22 percent of enrollment, while Latinos are 34 percent of enrollment. (Whites and Asians together make up the remaining 44 percent.)

‘Apartheid education’

Majority-black, low-income schools are more likely to be on academic probation and less likely to offer AP, says G. Alfred Hess, director of the Center for School Policy at Northwestern University. “You can’t just mandate to those schools that they start having more AP courses. We’ve got an apartheid system of education here. If you put all the least well-prepared 8th graders in one set of high schools, you wouldn’t expect to find many AP course takers.”

Barbara Sizemore, former dean of DePaul University’s School of Education and creator of the School Achievement Structure improvement program, says majority-black schools typically face three major problems that reduce AP participation. She blames a lax academic climate, difficulties finding and keeping strong teachers and the need to concentrate on instilling discipline to keep students focused on academics.

“The enforcement of standard operating procedures— getting to class in four minutes—this takes a lot of energy and a lot of time,” Sizemore says. “In some of these schools, teachers and administrators have given up.”

“These schools do not attract the teachers who want to teach the [AP] courses. It’s not the overriding problem but it’s one problem,” Sizemore adds. “If you have a school with a core of teachers committed to the academic [focus] you have a stronger chance of recruiting students” to take AP.

One teacher who hasn’t given up on bringing AP to a predominantly black school is Durrell Anderson, AP chemistry teacher at Simeon Career Academy in Chatham. Anderson brought AP to Simeon three years ago and gave himself a year to recruit; his first class had 18 students.

Now, lack of time during the school day to complete labs is a challenge. But Anderson remains committed, offering extra lab time after school twice a week and during lunch periods.

“Is AP needed? Yes, big time, especially in African American communities, where you often have students not going on to college or starting college and then dropping out,” Anderson says. “The better prepared they are the more success they’re going to have in post-secondary education. That’s one of the biggest goals, to make sure African American children or children in underserved communities have the proper education, no matter what.

As more Latino students jump on the AP bandwagon, he “immigrant factor” may play a role, suggests Louise Cainkar, a sociologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies immigration and ethnicity. For example, undocumented students attending Illinois state colleges and universities were required to pay out-of-state tuition rates until last year, and enrolling in AP courses and doing well on the exams “would boost their chances for scholarships and private aid,” explains Cainkar. “In general, this predicament, and the much fewer opportunities for higher education in their parents’ home countries, set a context for excelling. Children who are smart are highly motivated to get the most they can out of the educational system.”

Senior Donovan Stinson of Jones College Prep, who is African American, says Latino students at Jones tend to strive, while African Americans remain more complacent. “We’ve become satisfied with what we have, and they’re looking for more,” Donovan suggests.

However, part of the problem is lack of preparation, he adds. Stinson says he declined when one of his teachers tried to recruit him for AP English, telling himself that honors courses were enough of a challenge given that his former West Side grammar school “didn’t really push you that much.”

AP can have ‘ripple effect’

Research shows that enrollment in tougher courses, like AP, is the most reliable predictor of college success, especially for students of color.

The U.S. Department of Education’s 1999 landmark study, “Answers in the Tool Box,” helped spark a national push to expand access to AP among underrepresented students. The report found that completion of a strong academic curriculum correlated more strongly with bachelor’s degree completion than high school grades, test scores or class rank. The positive effect of a high-quality curriculum was most pronounced for African American and Latino students. Whether or not a student took Advanced Placement courses was one factor used to rank the quality of that student’s curriculum.

Advanced Placement courses push teachers to hold students to a higher standard, experts say, and can also create a ripple effect that raises the bar in earlier courses. “One of the most devastating things we do in public education is to have lower expectations for students from low-income families and students of color,” says Ross Weiner, policy director for the Education Trust, a Washington think-tank dedicated to closing the achievement gap. “When we envision those students as AP students, it drives a whole set of changes in our expectations and in the way that we serve them.”

At Kennedy, Rocio Barba’s freshman algebra teacher encouraged her to double up on math courses as a sophomore, taking both geometry and advanced algebra with trigonometry in preparation for calculus in her senior year. “It was a challenge,” Rocio says. “I like a challenge.”

Now, AP Calculus is her favorite class. And while Rocio hasn’t scored high enough on any AP exams to earn college credit, she says the exposure to college-level material and support from AP teachers helped her prepare better for college.

“The teachers go up to you and say, ‘If you’re the type of person who wants to go to college, you might as well get a feel for it, so when you’re a freshman you won’t be stressing out as much about the pace,'” Rocio says. “They encourage us to do as much as we can, to do more.”

AP teachers say having an external, college-level benchmark exam to shoot for raises their standards. Angelique Smith, now in her second year of teaching AP biology at Kennedy, says she now expects more from her students.

“I wasn’t sure what they would be able to accomplish until the first year [was over],” Smith says. “I move much faster than I did last year. They have to do more outside work, more research. They’re more responsible for learning on their own.” This year, she also ordered a college-level textbook to replace the usual high school text. improving curriculum, labs

As CPS strives to expand AP course offerings, the district is also working to improve its elementary school curriculum. One example is in math. In 2003, the central office created an algebra task force to find ways to increase the number of students taking algebra—a gateway to higher-level math and science—before 9th grade. Nationally, about one-third of students take algebra before high school, compared to about seven percent in CPS.

Early access to algebra is critical, says Martin Gartzman, chief officer of math and science for CPS. “It gets them into an AP track so in senior year they would take AP calculus or AP statistics,” he says.

To prepare teachers, Gartzman’s office is partnering with three local universities—DePaul, University of Chicago, and the University of Illinois at Chicago—to offer a one-year training program for elementary teachers who need to learn how to teach a high-school level algebra course. Currently, 80 teachers are enrolled.

Students who pass algebra courses with these specially credentialed teachers will be able to enroll in geometry in 9th grade. “They would begin their high school career in geometry and then culminate their career in an AP course,” says Gartzman.

CPS is also working to overhaul its long-neglected high school science labs. “There had been no major investment in science laboratories since the 1960s as far as anyone could tell,” says Gartzman. “You’d almost have to be heroic to [try to] teach laboratory-based science.”

Under former Schools CEO Paul Vallas, CPS began adding one new chemistry lab to each high school per year. Current CEO Arne Duncan’s administration has stepped up that pace and is upgrading all the labs at five to six high schools each year, at a cost of about $10 million annually. In June, CPS was scheduled to kick off a $75 million capital campaign to raise funds from corporations to complete the renovation effort.

CPS is also investing in better textbooks and curriculum materials. “The AP tests are really hard and they’re tough courses to teach,” says Michael Lach, director of science for CPS. He acknowledges the difficulties teachers face trying to teach AP without labs, materials or well-prepared students, and says his office is intent on solving the problems.

Putting money into curriculum is “one step in a long process of ratcheting up the quality of instruction in our high school science programs,” Lach says.

Harnedy says AP sparks better alignment between elementary and high schools.

“We’re really zeroing in on 6-12 and getting the elementary kids prepared to take AP in high school,” he says, citing meetings with area instructional officers and efforts to create discussion among teachers across the high school-elementary divide. “We’re really pushing that big time right now.”

Interns Dan Eder, Giselle Fuentes and Heather Gillers contributed to this report.

To contact Maureen Kelleher, call (312) 673-3882 or send an e-mail to kelleher@catalyst-chicago.org.

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