Diversifying AP Classes

Students in an AP Environmental Science class at Franklin. AP classes tend to enroll a disproportionate number of white students. Photo Credit: Kiran Weasel

I remember the first day of my AP Seminar class this year. It was very much like a regular classroom with desks, chairs and the teacher’s desk in the front of the room. I watched as the other students in my class filed in and found their seats. As I looked around at all the other students, it struck me that I did not fit in. With the exception of two people, everyone else was white. Although I knew this was a problem, it was not an issue I would ever bring up in class, and I knew it would not be discussed, unless I decided to bring it up.

Advanced Placement (AP) classes provide academically challenging material that prepares students for college success and for their professional lives. However, because of the way AP classes have been offered nationally, the lack of diversity is historically quite eminent within them.

Franklin has a very strong AP curriculum with around 20 unique classes offered. AP classes were once only offered to students who counselors thought able to manage the workload or known as the best and brightest in the school, everyone from grades 10-12 at Franklin and other PPS schools are now eligible to take them. However, this is leading to a dramatic racial divide within students enrolling in AP classes.

Students like Umi Hajimohamed, a sophomore at Franklin, says she took AP classes because she wanted to have a rigorous education. “I see other people in my classes and notice I am different, but I try not to look at the negative,” she says. Students of color like her have to experience racial exclusion all the time, even if it’s non-direct. They have taught themselves not to care about what the classroom dynamic looks like, but this is leading to problems such as less diverse classrooms. Feeling like one doesn’t belong in a classroom should never be a barrier to education or success, but many times it is.

Students who enroll in AP classes typically share many fundamental character traits such as having ambitious goals or being very organized. The difference between students of color compared to their white peers is that there is much less support or motivation from teachers, parents or administration to enroll. In fact, many adults assume the workload of an AP class is too much for people of color and may even discourage the efforts. Times have changed and it is now not allowed to discourage a student to take an AP class, but it is still noticeable that adults in schools are not mentioning AP classes to students of color. While most of this discrimination may be totally unintentional, the impact of those actions can put real harm on the student, as they may think they are not good enough to enroll in challenging classes. Many people also do not realize that AP classes are expensive. Greg Garcia, an AP US history teacher at Franklin, mentions that “at the school where I taught before, the poverty rate, was as high as 93 percent. The cost of taking an AP Test is roughly $60 per test. In that situation, it becomes a matter of prioritizing your money. $60 can either pay for a week’s worth of groceries or a test that student chooses to take.” Franklin and other PPS schools have opportunities for students of color to reduce the fee, but in schools that have a low poverty rate these fees may not be able to be waived. While not every student of color is in a difficult financial situation, it should be recognized by the school that people of color do tend to be of lower economic status because of systemic oppression. This means that they should have every opportunity to take an AP class.

Victor Candia (12) Remembers walking into AP Lang feeling like his intellect was lower than the white students, as they were using big words he had never heard of. Candia is just one of many students of color who have stepped into an AP class and automatically felt inferior to their white peers. People of color in these settings begin to feel embarrassed about their ability, and it just gets worse throughout the year. “AP classes require classroom discussions,” says Candia, and this means that people of color get placed into situations that are not only difficult but also embarrassing. Many times white students are from wealthier families who have historically had the means and resources to help bolster their children’s education. When a student of color steps into a classroom with their white peers, it can cause them to be ashamed.  A lot of times this can lead to the silence of many students of color even when an important topic is discussed.

Samma Jamma, a Junior at Westview High School, says she wants to be ready for college which is why she is taking AP classes. AP classes are able to prepare her for the workload of college, while also allowing her to obtain the education expected when in college. While AP classes help many for the college experience, it does not prepare the students who would benefit from it the most. Students of color have historically gotten lower quality education, and AP classes give a very strong education to those who take it. However, because there is no real push for students of color to take AP classes, the benefits of these classes go to the white students.

There are multiple ways in which schools, teachers, and other students can make people of color feel more comfortable in AP classes. One of the many things we can do is acknowledge the “Bill of rights for students of color in AP classes.” This bill was created on April 8, 2016 by PPS’s former chief of staff Amanda Whalen and board manager Rosanne Powell. It states that students of color “have the right to select the course they desire in order to gain exposure to material that will help them succeed in the collegiate environment.” We need to inform students of color that this bill is here for them, and that it can e used to protect them against discrimination from taking AP classes. This is a strong step for students of color as it acknowledges the problems students face in school when deciding whether to take AP classes. It also empowers students of color to take harder and more challenging classes. Another step that can be taken is supporting AP teachers and helping them understand the many obstacles that may stand in the way of a student of color taking an AP class. Garcia says, “I spend quality time with my students and I got to know where they struggled,” which allowed him to connect to his students on another level and support them through their AP class. Many students of color do not have the support at home to take AP classes as they are expensive and very challenging. It is up to the teachers and administration of the school to step up and listen to the students of color. We also need to support students of color once they have enrolled in an AP class. Being a very small fraction of a class can be really off-putting and can lower the confidence of a student. White peers and teachers need to learn to listen to the students of color. Being silenced has only caused students of color to hide in the shadows of their white peers and by allowing their opinions and voices be heard, the classroom environment can be diversified in multiple ways.



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