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African-American participation in elite AP classes lags at St. Louis area schools

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In high schools throughout the St. Louis area, stark racial differences persist in terms of which students are progressing to the most advanced classes — a divide that threatens the ability of African-American students to prepare for college.

Tens of thousands of black students aren’t enrolling in calculus or Advanced Placement classes — long considered the gold standard for college readiness.

That’s true at most predominantly black high schools, which are less likely to provide rigorous course offerings.

But it’s also true in the suburbs, where predominantly white high schools offer a much broader range of opportunities.

Even there, African-American students are grossly underrepresented in elite classes.

Having the classes on a high school transcript can help a student get into selective colleges and universities. Passing the AP exam can result in college credit, saving students thousands of dollars in tuition. And study after study shows that students who take advanced courses are more likely to succeed in earning a degree.

Yet although black students make up 36 percent of enrollment in St. Louis County high schools, they made up just 12 percent of the enrollment in Advanced Placement classes in 2014-15, according to data from 25 school districts.

In St. Charles County high schools, black students make up 7.7 percent of enrollment, and 3.6 percent of enrollment in AP courses.

The disparity is even more stark for calculus.

It’s a divide that has increasingly drawn the attention of suburban districts over the years, though they have had limited success in addressing it.

Reasons for the inequities are complex. African-American students are more likely than white students to come from low-income households — a risk factor for academic success. And even when poverty isn’t a factor, black students are less likely to be in district preschool, gifted programs and in accelerated math in middle school.

By the time they get to high school, they may be less prepared for rigorous classes.

But education experts here and elsewhere say cultural barriers in the classroom also are at play, ones that discourage even well-prepared African-American students from signing up for challenging classes, particularly AP.

Those barriers include teachers and counselors who may not see the potential of black students.

Maxine Birdsong, a social worker at Ladue Horton Watkins High School, said she frequently saw black students who doubted their abilities.

“Somewhere, somehow you’ve been disconnected from your brilliance,” she said she told them. “I apologize to you as an educator. Somehow we have failed you.”

That disconnect is something that several dozen students and parents interviewed by the Post-Dispatch over this school year say they have experienced.

In 2014 Bersabeh Mesfin got a taste of what it’s like to be a black honors student at the start of her sophomore year at Clayton High School.

On the first day of class, she walked into an honors science course and was met with a puzzled look on her instructor’s face. “Are you supposed to be here?” she remembers his asking.

To Bersabeh, now a junior at Parkway West High, the question carried a familiar subtext. It’s a feeling of being treated as an outsider, of being held to a lower set of expectations.

“It’s a comment I bet a lot of African-Americans hear,” said Bersabeh, who hopes to become a surgeon. “And I bet it’s not a question he would have asked a Caucasian.”

Access and expectations

The shortage of black students in rigorous courses has partly to do with access.

Area high schools with the highest concentrations of black students tend to provide the least exposure to rigorous classes, such as calculus and AP.

The Post-Dispatch gathered information on AP enrollment at all district high schools in St. Louis, St. Louis County and St. Charles County, as well as Madison and St. Clair counties in Illinois. Other area counties with smaller African-American enrollment were not included in the analysis.

In the 2014-15 school year, McCluer-South Berkeley, Roosevelt and Vashon high schools — where at least nine out of 10 students are black — offered just one AP class each. Normandy High, with a mostly black enrollment, offered none.

Elsewhere in the region, Lindbergh, Francis Howell Central, Lafayette and Timberland high schools — where about eight or more out of 10 students are white — offered 20 or more AP classes last school year, with options including music theory, macroeconomics, statistics and environmental science.

Data from Illinois, meanwhile, suggest that the disparities are less severe in the Metro East. East St. Louis and Cahokia high schools — which are predominantly black — offered eight and six AP courses in the 2014-15 school year, respectively. Edwardsville and Alton high schools, both predominantly white, offered 11 and 13 AP courses, according to state data.

Access for under-represented minorities is increasingly a concern of the College Board, the nonprofit organization that oversees the development of Advanced Placement curriculum and testing. The organization has been pushing for expansion of the courses into schools whose students are the most disadvantaged.

But the board is also urging superintendents and principals to improve access in more diverse schools where minority participation in these classes is low. The College Board’s own data show that many capable minority students aren’t enrolling.

“Nationally, all black, brown or Latino kids who have potential should be in them,” said Wendell Hall, a senior director at College Board. “What we’ve found when looking at the data, often times a kid has the potential, the class was offered, but the kid wasn’t in there,” he said.

In many high schools, to sign up for AP classes a student must express interest and have a counselor’s support. Teacher input also comes into play.

Hall said these were structural barriers that prevented many black and Latino students from enrolling.

“No kid should have to go talk to the counselor,” he said.

Since the 1980s, thousands of black parents have sought better education options in St. Louis County. More than 30,000 city children have boarded buses for predominantly white schools as part of the voluntary desegregation program. And more recently, hundreds of parents in the Normandy and Riverview Gardens school districts have done the same under Missouri’s school transfer law, even crossing into St. Charles County to enroll their children.

Test scores alone indicate that black students fare better academically in high-performing schools than in schools that are segregated by race and income. They’re also more likely to graduate. It’s why many black parents have bought homes in predominantly white districts so their children could be in high-performing classrooms.

But some African-American parents say their children’s opportunity at those schools — particularly when it comes to elite courses — has been limited.

One mother said her black daughter with good grades at Parkway Central High was discouraged by a counselor from taking honors English. A father in Kirkwood said he wasn’t informed that his accelerated middle school son could take more challenging math courses at Kirkwood High, even when he asked about more rigorous options.

“Why would you push others and give them opportunity, but not give it to him?” said Jeffrey Blair, the father.

Benefiting all

Increasingly, educators in several suburban districts are questioning structures and practices they suspect may be stifling the potential of many black children. That includes cultural sensitivity training for teachers to better connect with minority students.

A study released in March by Johns Hopkins University found that white teachers expect significantly less academic success from black students than black teachers do. This is particularly the case when the students are boys.

“A teacher telling a student they’re not smart will weigh heavily on how that student feels about their future and perhaps the effort they put into doing well in school,” said Nicholas Papageorge, co-author of the study.

But other initiatives are underway. In Illinois, State Superintendent of Schools Tony Smith and Gov. Bruce Rauner announced their intention to help 100,000 minority and low-income students gain access to AP courses in the next three years.

In the fall, Clayton School District officials began examining achievement disparities among racial groups. Administrators have surveyed and met with black parents and students to hear about their experiences in the classroom.

In Parkway, a district initiative called Diversity in Action aims to correct the problem of failing to identify black students who are gifted, and to further diversify honors classes in all of its schools. The approach has found some success.

In Kirkwood, a 60-member task force of black and white educators, parents and district residents began working one year ago to eliminate racial divides. The group went beyond achievement differences and began examining messages children may be receiving about themselves through curriculum. They’re looking at programs to see who is benefiting from them and who is not.

In the 2014-15 school year, black students made up 17 percent of Kirkwood High’s enrollment but just 4 percent of AP enrollment.

“Are we keeping them away from opportunity?” asked Bryan Painter, an assistant superintendent in Kirkwood, during an interview in his office. “What are we telling kids about their own abilities?”

On Monday, the Kirkwood School Board accepted the 56-page report that resulted from the task force meetings. Included in the report is a goal that enrollment in AP and honors classes would reflect the diversity percentages of the school.

Making strides

Back in August, Naomi Blair, a junior, walked into her AP Psychology class at Kirkwood High and immediately felt uncomfortable. She was the only African-American student in the room.

“I could practically hear their words, ‘What is she doing in this class?’ ” Naomi wrote in an essay that was published in YES! Magazine in December.

Her experience turned into an effort to make students like her feel more comfortable in Kirkwood’s most advanced classes. The first step was persuading more to enroll.

So in March, with the encouragement of her AP Language and Composition teacher, Naomi stood with four other black honors students at the front of a second-floor classroom. More than 20 African-American underclassmen were there to hear what they had to say about honors and AP classes.

“How many of you have heard of honors or AP?” Naomi asked them. All but a few of the hands went up. “How many have signed up for one of these classes for next year?” Most of the hands stayed down.

One by one, Naomi and the honors students shared the amount of studying and time involved in AP classes such as calculus, world history and language composition. Naomi hoped that hearing from peers would boost the confidence levels of the underclassmen, some of whom said they were wavering between general classes or more rigorous ones.

“We are not performing at the level we should be,” Naomi told them. “That does not mean we do not have the ability to.”

Romona Miller, an assistant principal, told the students the biggest barriers to these classes was often themselves.

“We feel like these are classes we don’t belong in,” said Miller, herself an African-American. “Why do we feel that way? No one has a sign that says, ‘Hey, you don’t belong here. You can’t come.’ ”

A more extensive outreach is taking place in Ladue.

It began in 2010, when social studies teacher Rob Good noticed that the number of African-American students in AP courses was on the decline at Ladue Horton Watkins High, despite the fact that the school had expanded its offerings.

Good believed the decline was due partly to students’ worrying, “Am I really ready to take this?”

“It was an opportunity gap,” he said. “They didn’t see that the opportunity was for them.”

The following school year, he and Eric Hahn, a history teacher, worked to address this by starting an after-school club for black students enrolled in AP classes. They began meeting in the library for two hours on Monday nights, after sports practices.

Teachers volunteered their time. The school provided dinner. The club is called STRIDE, for Students Taking Rigorous Instruction Developing Exceptionally. It is also open to Hispanic students and is an approach that has proven successful in other states.

One evening in March, about 30 sophomores and juniors filled tables in the school’s cavernous library. They had questions for AP instructors — questions about the upcoming AP World History test, and recent quiz in AP European History. Hahn led a quick discussion about study skills.

Elijah Martin, a junior, said that without the program he wouldn’t have signed up for AP classes.

“It’s the experience of being around people like you,” said Elijah, who hopes to become an astrophysicist. “Seeing what they can do, what you can do — that can empower you.”

In the four years since the program was launched, the number of black and Hispanic students enrolled in Ladue’s AP courses has increased by 159 percent. The average exam score rose one point, to a three, out of a potential five.

Simi Falako, who graduated this month, said she didn’t know about AP or honors classes until teachers and students in STRIDE approached her as a sophomore. She hesitated to enroll, knowing she’d probably be the only black student in the room. But ultimately, she took nine AP classes.

This fall, she will attend Harvard University.

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Elisa Crouch is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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