Lawrence Public Schools report forecasts drop in Black high school students enrolling in AP courses

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Black students’ enrollment in advanced placement (AP) courses at Free State and Lawrence high schools is expected to drop by 26% this fall, according to a recent report.

At the same time, most of their peers will increase their AP enrollment by 21 to 41%. This disparity raises questions about whether or not all students feel empowered to take these college-level courses.

Although the percentage of all incoming 11th and 12th grade students taking at least one AP class is projected to increase by 17% this coming fall, there are alarming gaps between racial and ethnic groups, according to the report.

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Across the two high schools, the report showed a notable increase in AP enrollment among white students, Hispanic or Latinx students, and multiracial and additional race students. Along with the decrease in Black student enrollment, Asian students’ enrollment in AP classes is expected to decrease as well, by 2.5%. 

When asking Black high school students what barriers might be keeping them from taking AP classes, Cynthia Johnson, the district’s executive director of inclusion, engagement and belonging, said the overwhelming response is that they feel underrepresented among their peers and their teachers.

Cynthia Johnson

“Students shared with us that they do not see others like them in these classes or leading these classes. The district is working to improve upon both,” Johnson said via email.

The district is partnered with Equal Opportunity Schools (EOS), whose mission includes ensuring students have equitable access to advanced coursework. The group specifically aims to break barriers for students of color and low-income students.

Because participation in AP classes helps to prepare students for college or careers after high school, the Seattle-based nonprofit works with school districts to help these underserved students so that they “have opportunities to succeed at the highest levels.”

EOS in April released a study to find the root of why Black and Latino students and students from low-income backgrounds are underenrolled in AP STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) courses.

Researchers Kayla Patrick, Jonathan Davis and Allison Rose Socol of The Education Trust found two systemic causes: Reliance of education leaders on a student’s persistence or assumptions about their intelligence instead of addressing barriers that make it difficult for students to enroll, and reliance on single denominators of readiness, such as GPAs and test scores.

Last year’s district report on equity in AP classes found that white students were 1.4 times more likely to enroll in AP courses than Hispanic or Latino students, 1.9 times more likely than Black students, and 2.7 times more likely than Alaska Native and American Indian students.

Just 15.5% of Black students are expected to enroll in AP courses for fall 2022, down from 21% last fall. The anticipated 26% decrease is the largest drop among any racial or ethnic group over the data from 2020 through 2022.

During a recent school board meeting, board President Erica Hill asked administrators what was being done to address this year’s drop in Black student enrollment in AP courses specifically.

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Matt Renk, assistant principal at Free State, and Mark Preut, associate principal at Lawrence High, who are both members of the district’s Equity Advisory Council, shared their approaches to Hill’s question.

“I think one of the things we have to continue to focus in on is that student belonging piece, making sure that all of our students are seeing other students like them in those classes,” Renk responded at the meeting.

Preut added that AVID, a college-readiness program, is a valuable resource because it instills confidence in students. Preut also said staff will focus on reaching out to parents and guardians more next year so that they can encourage their students to take AP courses. 

Building strong relationships with students and their families is the foundation of closing that AP enrollment gap, Johnson said.

“Words of encouragement or a personal invitation from a staff member can make a difference in students of color enrolling in an AP course,” she said.

“Building relationships is a component of school connectedness. The more connected a student is to a caring adult at school, the more likely they will succeed in school.”

In addition, the district’s partnership with EOS includes a “student-led outreach process.”

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“The plan to increase the number of African American students in AP courses includes students organizing peer recruitment, mentoring, and/or support groups for other students; participating on a Student Advisory Council that meets with building/district administration and participating in different student leadership groups to promote change in AP courses,” Johnson said.

To combat the possibility that Black students will feel pressured into taking AP classes or feel they are being tokenized during these outreach efforts, Johnson said it’s vital to center student voices and shape approaches to fit different students’ needs. We were unable to reach any students for this article.

Johnson said recent cuts to staffing will not affect the number of AP classes available this fall because the number of courses offered is based solely on student requests to determine the master schedule at each high school.

EOS generated the report for the district on April 21 after collecting data and surveys through early April. Projections were made based on a comparison between the number of incoming 11th and 12th graders who have submitted AP course requests for fall 2022 and previous enrollment in AP courses in fall 2021 at both high schools. 

The report, which was formally presented at the school board meeting on May 23, can be found on pages 12 through 23 on the Student Centered Learning Update.

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Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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