Original URL: http://www.azstarnet.com/star/mon/31124TUSDGRADUATION2fAP.html

Fewer minority kids in college prep classes
Trend holds true in TUSD for both blacks, Hispanics

24 November 2003
By Sarah Garrecht Gassen

Minority high school students are taking college prep courses in disproportionately low numbers - a trend TUSD is trying to reverse by making high school courses consistent from campus to campus.

In some areas of study the number of minority students participating in Advanced Placement classes is in the single digits, according to Tucson Unified School District data. Advanced Placement classes are rigorous national courses where students can pass a test for college credits.

"We don't have just an achievement gap: We have an opportunity gap," said Kelly Langford, senior academic officer for student services.

"Children of color often aren't encouraged to take those classes," Langford said. "We have kids with 4.0 grade point averages who have never taken an AP or honors class and they tell us, 'I didn't know I could take those classes.' "

Out of TUSD's 11 high schools, only nine black students are taking AP math classes this school year, according to district numbers. There are more than 1,000 black students enrolled in TUSD high schools.

The trend holds true for Hispanic students as well. For example, 43 percent of high school students are Hispanic, but only 22 percent of them are in AP English.

Enrollment in Advanced Placement classes is a snapshot of how the most serious students are faring in TUSD, and the news isn't necessarily good for minority students, said Marla Motove, district chief academic officer.

The pressure is also on high schools because this year's sophomore class must pass the state AIMS test to graduate from high school.

Part of the problem is a lack of cohesion between high schools in TUSD, Motove said.

Course offerings and grading standards aren't always the same from school to school. Students have had problems when they tried to transfer schools, and the receiving school questioned their credits from another TUSD school, Motove said.

"There has been a practice in this district that the high schools, to a degree, act autonomously," Motove said.

As a result, some courses count toward graduation requirements at one school that might not count at another school.

To solve the problem, high school principals are meeting at least monthly to come up with a standard set of course offerings and figure out what content needs to be in those courses, Motove said.

Principals will also be making sure their schools are offering the prerequisite courses students will need to take - and succeed in - the Advanced Placement courses.

The district is also looking at how to make sure that more students who take AP classes are able to take the tests, administered by the national College Board, that can result in college credit, Motove said.

Figures on how many TUSD students take the course but don't take the test weren't available, but often cost is an issue because students can't afford the roughly $80 fee per test.

At Cholla High School, on the city's West Side, AP students have formed a club to raise money to pay for at least one test for each student who wants to take the exam.

Raising the expectations of students, teachers and the community is another key part of the equation, said Cholla High School Principal Sam Giangardella.

"Expectations were different for kids here," he said. "Maybe the kids' expectations and the community's expectations weren't high enough - I'd hear people say 'I just want them to get through high school.' "

Cholla is encouraging students to challenge themselves while offering support to those who need extra help.

For example, Cholla does not require a minimum grade point average to take an AP class, as some other schools do, Giangardella said.

The percentage of minority students in AP courses is more reflective of the Cholla
student population than at other schools. For example, 61 percent of Cholla students are Hispanic and 57 percent of AP students are Hispanic.

At the same time, Cholla offers 10 reading classes to students who need help with basic skills and offers centralized tutoring three days a week after school in the cafeteria.

Advanced Placement students at Cholla said they signed up for the difficult courses because they want the challenge and want to be prepared for college.

"We could take easy classes if we wanted to," said La Shanda Grant, a Cholla junior who is taking AP American Government. "A lot of kids don't want to push themselves, and they drop out of hard classes."

Even with all the encouragement in the world from teachers, minority students still have to overcome peer pressure against excelling in school, according to some students at Cholla.

"I think especially with some minority students, they don't want to sell out because they think being intelligent is some way of being white," said junior Jesse Forney. "A lot of minorities could be in these classes, but they won't do it."

Grant said she hears criticism from other students about taking advanced classes and being good at academics.

"They say: 'Are you trying to be white? Are you trying to be better than me?' " Grant said. "I'm not - I'm like 'I want a job.' "

The Cholla students said some teachers and counselors have gone to great lengths to help. But students say they interpret other guidance - what a teacher may think is practical advice - as casting doubt on their abilities and dreams.

"Teachers say 'Why do you want to go to the University of Arizona?: You're just going to drop out, so you should just start at Pima Community College,'" said junior Ryan Ruiz.

"We see it as teachers saying 'You're not smart enough' and I think that maybe I don't have the brains to make it," she said.

* Contact Sarah Garrecht Gassen at 573-4117 or at sgassen@azstarnet.com.