Oct 30, 2017

‘Lead Higher’ Inspiring More Students Into AP Courses

ChaKira Flenory continues to enroll in AP classes, in part thanks to Lead Higher

For ChaKira Flenory, enrolling in her first Advanced Placement class in 2016 put a lot of challenging questions in her mind – none of which had to do with Shakespeare’s sonnets or the nature of chemical bonds.

“I took my first AP class, often wondering what I was doing in the class,” she said. “Some of the questions I struggled with were, ‘Is this for me? Is this class worth jeopardizing my stellar grade point average? Do I need the stress of the added work?”

As the year progressed, ChaKira realized that not only could she handle the rigorous expectations of an AP class, but that she could shine.

“I could excel in this class with some redirecting of the energy I was putting into questioning my ability and whether it was worth my time into adapting to the challenges and expectations that were placed before me,” she said.

A year later, ChaKira is taking her second AP class. Like many other students in Pickerington’s high schools, she has become convinced that the more rigorous courses are indeed a viable option for them, thanks in part of a program called Lead Higher.

AP courses are a vital part of class schedules for many high school students who are thinking about getting a leg up on college credits, scholarships, and their general academic performance.

AP classes look great on college and scholarship applications, can boost grade point averages, and generally prepare students for the tougher academic rigors of college courses.

Unfortunately, national data shows students from many demographic and socioeconomic groups are underrepresented in AP courses, according to Maggie Buckley, a Teaching and Learning Coordinator in Pickerington Schools.

“These students would benefit from AP courses, and their past academic performance shows they would likely succeed as an AP student,” Buckley said. “But they aren’t enrolling in them.”

Pickerington Schools is working to identify and close that gap through Lead Higher, a program lead by Equal Opportunity Schools in partnership with the College Board and other organizations. Lead Higher’s goal is to increase the number of students of color and students from low-income families enrolled in AP and International Baccalaureate classes.

“We start by looking at who is and is not signing up for AP courses in our high schools,” Buckley said. “Working with Lead Higher, we look at student data and identify students from underrepresented groups who would be likely to succeed in an AP environment. Then, we take the necessary steps to get them into those classes and help them succeed once they are there.”

The district and Lead Higher began setting the groundwork for change in the 2015-16.

In the fall of 2016, data showed students from underrepresented groups – students of color and low-income students – were only 65 percent as likely to be enrolled in an AP course than other students. Thanks to the work with the Lead Higher program, by spring 2017 – when students registered for classes for fall 2017 – that percentage had climbed district-wide to nearly 90 percent as likely to enroll.

When classes started in the fall of 2017, the district had 186 more underrepresented students enrolled in the more rigorous AP courses.

“Lead Higher looks at our student data and helps us identify where our equity gap is,” Buckley said. “Then, they help us develop plans to close that gap.”

Those plans involved creating a district-wide team and a team at each high school to focus on this specific topic. Students and staff were surveyed about their perceptions of AP courses, which helped determine why some students avoided the more rigorous classes. These surveys also helped the schools determine which students were mentally ready to take on the challenge of AP courses.

The district made numerous changes to improve engagement and communication. School counselors, teachers, and administrators planned large group, small group, and one-on-one meetings with students and their parents. There were assemblies and luncheons. Panels of AP students spoke about their experiences. The Ohio State University’s Office of Diversity visited Pickerington to talk to students about college.

“We trained staff about the best ways to have conversations with kids about how to schedule their classes,” Buckley said. “When students in surveys identified trusted adults in the buildings, those adults reached out individually.”

In addition to changing the mindset of students, the district also made changes to staff behaviors and attitudes.

“An AP course can already be intimidating for someone who has never taken one before,” Buckley said. “Some teachers realized that they needed to be more encouraging to students. They needed to show students that success in an AP course is an option.”

The schools also made it more difficult to simply drop a class at the beginning of the year.

“Our drop policy allowed kids to drop a class within the first 10 days of school for pretty much any reason,” she said. “Kids would start and decide to drop the class because they feared it would be too hard. That made it too easy for students and parents to default to the easier path and avoid the challenge of an AP course.”

Twana Black, assistant principal at Pickerington High School Central, said a program like Lead Higher is valuable in combatting what has been a significant social equity issue for districts. This inequity has led some students to feel they may not be equipped to handle advanced curriculum in AP classes.

“A program like Lead Higher promotes all hands on deck to challenge all students to extend beyond their current reach,” Black said. “I feel that we are experiencing positive outcomes as a result of implementing this program. Students are pushing themselves to tread the difficult terrain of the more advanced curriculum. Stretching beyond expectations has been the goal and students are attempting just that.”

Black said her school has used tactics such as student focus groups, workshops, and fairs to get the word out to students.

“We have pushed one-on-one conversations between students and teachers through the ‘trusted adult’ initiative,” she said. “We hosted a retreat for students who were new to AP. This prompted a lot of discussion regarding the support of students who were taking the class.”

Buckley emphasizes that the AP gap is not just a Pickerington problem. Research proves it exists across the country. The gap is, however, an issue Pickerington is aggressively working to address.

“This equity gap is a social justice issue, certainly,” she said. “As a community, we should be invested in challenging all of our students to reach their full potential. When you see students who have that potential, but who aren’t taking the kinds of courses they should be, it causes you to look at yourself and say, ‘What can we do about that?’”