Glenbard District 87 wants more students taking AP classes
Brenda Vazquez Hernandez walked into her class and immediately second-guessed her decision.
She was the only Latina in the room.
"You feel really out of place, and you really doubt yourself," she said.
What's more, this was an Advanced Placement course -- tough enough for college -- and Vazquez Hernandez was just a sophomore at Glenbard West High School. But she had the confidence of her teacher and another who had persuaded her to challenge herself.
"If there wasn't a teacher there to come forward, we might have missed that opportunity for her to experience all these AP courses," says Rebecca Sulaver, assistant principal for instruction at the Glen Ellyn school.
This year, Vazquez Hernandez is taking five such classes that award college credit to students who pass the AP exams. And the senior from Carol Stream is applying to become the first in her family to go to a four-year college.
"I used to do a lot of things last minute," she said. "In AP courses you can't do that -- you have to be on top of things."
Those kinds of stories are playing out in Glenbard High School District 87, where the number of students taking AP tests has doubled since 2007. Educators credit a "mindset change" to make AP classes more inclusive and challenge students to step outside their comfort zone.
The result? AP students, they say, are more likely to succeed in entry-level classes in college and go on to graduate.
Rethinking the "AP label" also means recruiting even the students who may be bound for jobs or vocational schools.
"It just makes a stronger, smarter, sharper, capable person," said Superintendent David Larson.
Though pleased by the gains, district leaders are aiming for an ambitious goal: In spring 2018, they want 60 percent of graduating seniors to have passed at least one AP exam during their four years in high school.
"You're growing a culture of leveling up, so each year we've had more interest, more students," Larson said. "We've gotten a lot of low-hanging fruit, but there's still some there."
To help reach their goal, the district is partnering with Equal Opportunity Schools to identify potential AP students they may have missed and boost the number of minority students taking the classes.
"We're really being data-driven and showing them exactly what's going on in their schools," said Marquise Roberson, partnership director at the Seattle nonprofit group. "It's very much a conversation about how do your AP classes look like now?"
The intensive, one-year program begins with a survey of teachers and students. The questions are driven by psychology -- Do you feel like you belong in the classroom? Do you have trusted adults in the school? -- and ask teens about their career goals. On the flip side, teachers weigh in on whether students have "grit," or the right attitude for AP.
"The whole process EOS uses is very methodical and deliberate," Larson said. "They use teacher comments. They use students' opinions of themselves."
To get a complete -- and candid -- picture, EOS demands that at least 90 percent of students and staff members complete the survey. Each of the four high schools exceeded that target, said Roberson, who's been visiting the district at least once every month.
EOS takes the survey results and data from tests scores and creates a "student insight card," a profile that the district can use to see whether the teen would be a good fit for AP. An apple on the card represents a teacher who endorsed the student for an AP class.
"The idea is that once you get these student insight cards, then you develop a plan to communicate with students and their families and say, 'Hey, we know that you can do this, and this is why,'" said Jeff Feucht, the district's assistant superintendent for educational services.
That outreach will begin before holiday break and continue into early January and February, working toward closing enrollment gaps in AP classes for the 2016-17 school year.
EOS also will work with the district to develop a plan, specific to each school, to help prepare students for the more rigorous curriculum.
Vazquez Hernandez said she got a leg up by taking a so-called AP bridge course in the summer, where the district grouped her with other Latinas, and she was introduced to concepts she revisited in the regular school year.
With a broader number of students taking exams, would scores dip? The district's passing percentage -- 73 percent -- has decreased incrementally in recent years, but it is still much higher than the state average, Feucht said.
"We don't spend too much time talking about passing percentage because if you really pressure teachers about passing percentage," he said, "there's a tendency to gate-keep and not make their classes accessible to more students because you only want the kids that are going to do really well, and that's not our goal."
Rather, "what we're saying is we want all of our students to consider challenging themselves once over four years in an area of interest," he said.
By the numbersHere's a look at Glenbard District 87's AP program
• In spring 2015, 43.5 percent of graduating seniors had passed at least one AP exam during their four years in high school
• Overall, 2,382 students were tested in spring 2015, up from 1,095 in 2007
• 9.2 AP tests were taken per 100 black students, up from five in 2009.
• 33 tests were taken per 100 Hispanic students, up from 10 in 2009.