AP class demographics troubling for VAHS

VASD considers pre-requisites changes
Scott Girard

Verona Area High School administrators are considering changes to the school’s Advanced Placement program in an attempt to close an achievement gap and get more under-represented students into more rigorous classes.

VAHS principal Pam Hammen and assistant principal Brian Boehm presented to the Verona Area School Board Monday a partnership the school has taken on with Equal Opportunity Schools, an organization that works to close the so-called “achievement gap” and is funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The partnership, which the district received a grant to partially fund but is still paying $18,000 for, aims to fix a demographic problem in the Advanced Placement classes, where only nine African-American students and 12 Hispanic/Latino students are enrolled in AP classes, compared with 369 white and Asian students, leaving heavily unequal proportions of students, both socioeconomically and racially.

To get each group up to 70 percent participation in AP classes among both low income and medium/high income students among all the races, the school would need to add 59 medium/high income and 19 low income white and Asian students, 23 medium/high income and 19 low income Hispanic/Latino students, 15 medium/high income and 21 low income African-American students and two medium/high income and three low income students of other races.

Superintendent Dean Gorrell joined Hammen and Boehm in pointing to the importance of these classes in preparing students for college. In a recent survey of VAHS students done through the partnership, 94 percent of respondents said they have an interest in pursuing college education.

The survey also showed that many students, especially those from under-represented classes, felt they had information barriers in front of them to taking AP classes, including not knowing the classes existed, not understanding the benefits or not having enough information from AP teachers and staff.

Board member Joanne Gauthier said the problem has existed for years in regard to knowledge and a stigma around AP classes.

“I didn’t know what AP was until all my friends were taking the classes,” Gauthier said. “It’s an old problem.”

An even higher percentage of students responding to the survey – again highest among underrepresented students – reported expectation barriers to taking the classes, including a lack of adult encouragement, no expectation at home of attending college and a perception of being unwelcome in the classes.

Hammen, Boehm and Gorrell also stressed that while the rules surrounding AP classes, including classes required as prerequisites, are issues the high school has to decide on, closing the gap in AP classes is a 4K-12 problem for the district. That was demonstrated when Gorrell invited administrators from all of the district’s schools to a presentation when the survey data was received weeks ago.

While the school’s administrators work to change the rules, there are also pre-conceived notions from teachers and staff that they need to change, including concerns about “dumbing down” AP classes or lowering test scores, reflecting poorly on their teaching.

“It’s a fear factor about who is going to notice if I don’t do as well. We don’t care how kids do on a test,” Gorrell said. “We want more kids taking more rigorous and relevant courses for them that light them up, that have shown consistently to be an indicator of completing college.”

Boehm pointed to other districts that have worked with Equal Opportunity Schools that have not seen their test scores go down, though he did not cite any specific district.

“It has not diminished the scores,” Boehm said. “It’s opened up the world of AP to a lot of folks who are benefitting from it who currently are locked out of that.”

One aspect of the survey created “Student at a Glance” information for each student, listing their interests, grade point average, trusted teachers, knowledge about AP classes and how many teachers recommended them for an AP class.

The presentation cited two specific examples, with one student having a 1.89 grade point average, typically well below what would be expected of a student before entering AP classes. However, the student also had two teachers recommending her to take AP classes.

This reflected a broad change in what VAHS staff members see as the best predictors of success in AP classes. The survey showed the highest success indicator, according to staff, was student motivation, followed by student interest, quality of teaching, prerequisites, grade point average and test scores.

Moving forward, administrators plan to use that information to target students who they hope will take those classes, and have the “trusted teachers” they listed begin those conversations, and hope to begin closing the gaps by fall 2014.

2014-15 calendar

The board also looked at a draft of the 2014-15 school year calendar Monday night.

Before giving final approval, they are considering moving a five-day weekend currently scheduled for Oct. 30-Nov. 3 a week earlier, to break up the first quarter more evenly.

The current draft has school beginning Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014, with the first quarter ending Friday, Nov. 7, 2014. The second quarter would run until Friday, Jan. 23, 2015, with winter break falling between Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2014, and Friday, Jan. 2, 2015.

Third quarter would begin Monday, Feb. 26, 2015, and go until Friday, April 3, 2015, when spring break would also begin.

The school year would resume April 13, 2015, and end June 11, 2015.

The board will consider the calendar at future meetings.

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