COLUMBIA — Columbia Public Schools doubled the enrollment of minority students in Advanced Placement courses and other rigorous classes for the 2013-14 school year.

Last fall, Columbia Public Schools entered a one-year partnership with Equal Opportunity Schools, a not-for-profit organization that aims to increase student participation in rigorous courses, such as AP and honors classes. 

Equal Opportunity Schools provides a resource to schools to help identify, recruit and support as many students as possible, said Jolene Yoakum, assistant superintendent for secondary education.

"The goal is to build our capacity to do this on our own, and EOS is helping with that," Yoakum said.

Superintendent Chris Belcher said his ultimate goal is to increase enrollment of students of color in high-expectation course work.

Last fall, he hypothesized that there would be almost double participation in rigorous courses after the district started working with Equal Opportunity Schools. Sure enough, in the past year, participation has doubled for most ethnicities.

In the 2012-13 school year, 667 of the 879 students enrolled in AP and honors courses were white, 51 were black, 34 were Hispanic, 80 were Asian and 44 were multiracial. Of the 879 students, 133 received free or reduced-price lunch.

This year, enrollment in AP and honors classes increased by 807 to 1,686. Of those students, 1155 are white, 225 are black, 68 are Hispanic, 131 are Asian and 99 are multiracial. The number of students in those courses who receive free or reduced-price lunch almost tripled to 395.

Some numbers do not fully add up because Columbia Public Schools cannot report some ethnicities, as the data would be identifiable, said Chip Sharp, the district's director of research, assessment and accountability.

Yoakum said she hopes that eventually the demographics of students enrolled in rigorous courses will mirror the demographics of students in the district.

For example, if 20 percent of the district's students were a certain ethnicity, race or socioeconomic level, then 20 percent of the students in rigorous courses would be, too.

To identify students who could do well in rigorous courses, Equal Opportunity Schools uses traditional data that Columbia Public Schools has collected in the past such as GPA, test scores, attendance, and ACT or other benchmark scores. It also uses a survey that asks students to assess what they know about AP courses, what their subject interests are and which teachers they view as advocates.

Some teachers were also surveyed about which of their students they identified as prepared for a higher-level course.

This is a new approach for the district. The goal in adding the surveys was to reduce the kind of barriers or gatekeepers that using just traditional data creates, said Sally Beth Lyon, the district's chief academic officer.

"(The surveys) were used as a tool to recruit the 'nontraditionally prepared' students who have a real passion for a particular subject," Lyon said.

For instance, if a student answered on the survey that he or she didn’t like math but loved science, that student would be encouraged to take a more rigorous science course.

After being encouraged to do so by Equal Opportunity Schools, the district is also working to increase minority student enrollment in rigorous courses by simply  making students more aware of those courses and the opportunities they offer.

Organizers of programs such as Minority Achievement Committee Scholars and Advancement Via Individual Determination, known as AVID, talked about AP courses in meetings and boosted students' confidence to iterate that they were capable of succeeding in AP courses.

When students had one-on-one meetings with their guidance counselors to plan their course schedules, the counselors encouraged students who weren't enrolled in AP courses to take the opportunity to challenge themselves.

The district also added incentives, said Michelle Baumstark, the district's community relations coordinator. Students who enroll in AP courses at Rock Bridge and Hickman high schools get access to iPads. All students at Battle High School already have iPad access because they have electronic textbooks.

Counselors and teachers also reiterated to parents that for a nominal amount of money, their students can take AP tests and get college credit, Baumstark said.

In addition to working with students and parents, Equal Opportunity Schools also works with teachers and counselors on how to encourage and support students so they're not just thrown into AP courses and then left to figure them out for themselves.

"Really what we're trying to do is motivate and challenge the kids to take something that's a little harder than what they feel comfortable with," Belcher said. "And it's just like all of us, to get me to do something that's a little outside my comfort zone, I've got to be given some assurances and some support that there's going to be someone to stand there with you if things get a little tough."

Belcher learned about Equal Opportunity Schools in 2012 at a Minority Student Achievement Network meeting about closing the academic achievement gap. A representative for Equal Opportunity Schools explained what the organization does, how other school districts have benefited, and the research behind the program.

Immediately interested, Belcher brought a brochure back to Yoakum, who looked into the organization further and held a meeting with Equal Opportunity Schools and some principals of district high schools.

Columbia School Board members voted unanimously at the board's Sept. 10, 2012, meeting in favor of using the organization.

Pleased with the results so far, the district has decided to work with the organization for another year.

So far, students' test scores have been in line with those of past years. The additional students have not been doing any better or worse than students who would have already been enrolled, Lyon said.

While the administration works hard to change the numbers of students in rigorous courses, Deborah McDonough, an AP Language and Composition teacher at Rock Bridge, is working hard to keep classes the same.

"We're not going to change the curriculum ... our standards will not be lowered," McDonough said.

McDonough said she has seen a slight increase in the number of students in her classroom, but she sees the same results with her current students as with those in any other AP class she has taught: the same number of students coming in for extra help, some students making a C grade when they are capable of making an A, and some students who really want to be there and strive to learn.

The teachers and the district have no clue whether individual students are enrolled because of Equal Opportunity Schools' efforts or simply because they wanted to, but they do see the numbers increasing, McDonough said.

Timothy Dickmeyer, an AP Psychology teacher at Rock Bridge, said that in terms of numbers, there is quantifiable evidence of an increase, but it will be hard to measure success of the new students.

"Success is different for everyone," Dickmeyer said. "An A or a 5 on the AP test is not necessarily success for everyone. Some students can have an extremely successful, meaningful learning experience without receiving top marks."

The district will have more indication of how successful the partnership with Equal Opportunity Schools has been in terms of grades when there are more grades and test scores to compare with last year's and those of years prior. Time will tell.

Supervising editors are Margaux Henquinet and Elizabeth Brixey.

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