Over the last three years at Oak Park and River Forest High School, the number of African American students in advanced placement, or AP, courses has spiked. In 2016 and 2017 there were fewer than 70 black students in AP courses. In 2018 the total was 100 — a 33 percent increase.

That’s important, because historically African American students have been grossly underrepresented in AP courses — unlike Latinx and Asian students, whose numbers in AP courses have been roughly on par with their representation among the general student population. 

But there’s room for improvement. There are still 11 percent fewer black students in AP courses than there are in the general student body. For low-income students and students with individualized education plans (IEPs), the rate of underrepresentation is starker — 12 percent and 14 percent, respectively. 

Greg Johnson, OPRF’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said that the district is addressing this reality through a three-pronged approach.  

“First, we had all students take a survey in early October designed to help us get an idea of who is interested in taking AP courses in the coming school year,” Johnson said. 

The administrator said that “one of the most important predictors of success in higher level coursework is simply showing the willingness to take on the challenge and the grit to persist throughout the course.” The survey, he added, is a way to help identify students who exhibit those qualities. 

The second prong comprises district officials creating a list of students whose preliminary SAT results demonstrate that they have what the College Board — the organization that created AP — refers to as “AP potential,” Johnson said. 

Third, he said, the district is “taking a combination of these factors, along with teacher recommendations, to encourage students of color to enroll in AP and Honors courses through our registration process.” 

But what if qualities like grit and persistent are not so much innate but developed with the right amount of resources and time? 

Johnson said that the district has a variety of support mechanisms in place, such as the tutoring center, professional development efforts and the new Huskie Scholar Academy, in order to help nurture and develop those qualities. 

Implemented this school year, the Academy’s mission is to “increase the number of historically underrepresented students who successfully complete” AP courses at OPRF, according to a statement on the district’s website. 

The Academy is led by a leadership board that includes administrators, staff members, three teachers, three school counselors, three parents/community members and three students. 

The program helps students of color “develop a sense of belonging and community within classes, the program, and the school,” while focusing on “reducing micro aggressions and stereotype threat” and helps participants improve their test-taking and study skills. 

“Our goal is to reach equity, defined by race ceasing to predict representation and performance in honors and AP courses,” Johnson said. “We aren’t picking a certain number of kids to reach this point, but instead working to promote the program and help encourage students who might not otherwise do so, to take on honors and AP work.”

SAY Connects is sponsored by the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation in partnership with Success for All Youth (SAY). 

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