I am an Advanced Placement teacher, but I never took any AP, International Baccalaureate or honors classes when I was in high school. There were many reasons why: gatekeeping by adults, low expectations for students of color, and my lack of comfort as an adolescent in nearly all white spaces.
Unfortunately, the data show that not much has changed since I was in high school 20 years ago. The underrepresentation of students of color and low-income students in advanced courses is a long-term driver and consequence of societal inequality.
We are not doomed to repeat the mistakes and failures of the past. In Tacoma — where I teach — our standard is to try to make our advanced classes demographically representative of our schools. It’s an official policy called Academic Acceleration. We never turn a kid away — even jocks who may be surprised to learn they qualify for advanced courses find themselves in my classroom. This policy works, sometimes even after the students (or their parents) express hesitation at the start of the school year about taking on advanced coursework.
I’d like to share a few examples. I am truly proud that when I stand in front of room No. 306, I see desks filled with students that look like those in the rest of building. Our AP classes look the same as our school buses, cafeteria and crowds at sporting events.
I often say that “my students may not be ‘AP students’ when I get them, but they are when I’m finished with them.” I’ve had dozens of students who tried their best to get out of taking the class in September, love the class and pass the exams in the spring.
I have a student who came to Lincoln late last school year. He’s now a senior taking and thriving in his first-ever AP class. His old school had limited AP offerings and kept other students out with complicated gatekeeping processes. After I handed him back his first exam of second semester, he pumped his fist. He had earned an “exceeds” — the highest score in our grade book. At most schools he would never be allowed near an AP class, but he’s stepped up to the challenge.
In my role as State Teacher of the Year in 2016 and as an advocate since then, I’ve worked hard to support policies that offer the same opportunities for all students. Focusing on the inequalities in advanced-course enrollment allows me to directly address a disparity based on my own experience as a student and a teacher.
There are some schools where in order to be in an AP or IB class you have to apply or go through an interview. Whether intentional or not, these contrived hurdles are a form of gatekeeping that keep out low-income students and students of color. We need to tear these gates down.
Fixing our education system so that it focuses on helping every kid succeed no matter where they go to school will take work from all of us — parents, teachers, students, administrators and policymakers. More than 50 districts in Washington already have Academic Acceleration; it works and it should be uniform statewide.
Washington lawmakers can take steps to strengthen student outcomes and bridge gaps that lopsidedly undermine some kids more than others. As a teacher, resident of Tacoma and advocate, I am encouraged to see policies like Academic Acceleration included in state legislation this year called the High School Success bill. This legislation will likely begin to improve outcomes for students in ways that are both innovative and proven.
The legislation also includes something that fills a need I’ve observed every year I’ve taught ninth grade at Lincoln: We need a better system for enabling teachers and school counselors to identify struggling students and intervene before they fall too far behind to earn their diploma. Instituting stronger futures for Washington students needs to be about what works best for them.
To make a step toward something better, we have to look beyond ourselves. We can do better. Our students deserve better.