WOODSTOCK – When Woodstock High School sophomore Vanessa Tapia found out one of her teachers recommended her for an Advanced Placement class, she felt a push she hadn’t felt before.
“A teacher said that I was capable of taking that AP U.S. History class, so I felt like, ‘Wow, someone actually believes I can take this,’ ” Tapia said. “I felt more encouraged.”
That was the goal of a program that was being piloted at the high school this past school year, in partnership with a nonprofit organization called Equal Opportunity Schools.
Woodstock Community Unit School District 200 was one of only seven Illinois districts to pilot the program as part of the Lead Higher Initiative, a collaborative project from the College Board, Equal Opportunity Schools and International Baccalaureate.
Superintendent Mike Moan deemed it a success locally, adding the school wasn’t “that bad to begin with” in terms of
“Overall, about 60 percent of our student body takes an AP class,” Moan said. “In the fall this year, we were probably closer with our Hispanic population to 45 percent and our total of low-income students was closer to 45 to 50 percent.
“Going into next year ... our enrollment level in all those areas is at about 60 percent.”
Equal Opportunity Schools works with schools nationwide, identifying “missing students” and facilitating an environment in which those students won’t miss out on advanced coursework, according to its website.
Moan explained students were surveyed at the start of the year and software from the organization helped to identify capable students based on their survey responses, their statistics and staff recommendations. Fifty more students enrolled in AP courses for next school year than this year, he added.
Justin Smith, principal of Woodstock High School, said enlisting the selected students was one of his favorite tasks this year.
“Bringing in students and actually explaining to them ... because a lot of times there are perceived barriers that may be barriers for them or maybe not, but just having those conversations with them ... you could just see eyes light up,” Smith said. “It might have been the first time for some students where they really felt somebody believed in them.”
Students who succeed on AP exams are more likely to graduate college on time, and have the opportunity to save time and money through placement and credit-granting policies, according to information provided by spokesman Zachary Goldberg with the College Board.
He also noted that research has shown scoring a three or higher on AP exams also can elicit higher college GPAs and higher graduation rates.
In Illinois, the number of AP test takers in public schools has made a huge jump in the past 10 years, up by nearly 150 percent between 2005 and 2015, according to figures from the College Board. In that same time frame, an even greater increase occurred for underrepresented minority students, from 6,184 to 27,980.
But the College Board acknowledges there’s still progress to be made.
Data on the U.S. class of 2015 show four in 10 black students and four in 10 Latino students demonstrated the potential to succeed in at least one advanced course, yet still did not enroll.
So, in 2013-14, the College Board rolled out the All In campaign, which aims to get 100 percent of black, Latino and Native American students with AP potential enrolled in at least one AP class.
“We oftentimes talk about the achievement gap, but we know there is also an opportunity gap,” said Wendell Hall, senior director of policy advocacy with the College Board.
There has to be intentionality in school districts to close that gap, Hall added.
That’s the idea behind Crystal Lake-based Community High School District 155’s effort, said Corey Tafoya, assistant superintendent of education services.
While not part of the Lead Higher Initiative, District 155 also has been focused on increasing access to AP through another program, Tafoya said.
The Advancement via Individual Determination program, or AVID, which District 155 piloted at Crystal Lake Central and South high schools, is an invitation-only program in which students partake in a multitude of activities to prepare them for college, including enrolling in AP honors courses, he said.
It is a program specifically for students who show potential but are “in the academic middle,” according to a District 155 news release from July 2014.
It’s for those students for whom AP courses were not an inevitable part of school, Tafoya added.
In four years, the number of AP tests administered by District 155 has climbed from about 1,665 to 3,572, and the number of students participating has gone from 872 to 1,791, according to district data.
Algonquin-based Community Unit School District 300 also has used AVID for almost a decade, and attributes its increased access to AP courses, in part, to that program.
AVID has been part of what Chief Academic Officer Ben Churchill called a three-pronged approach to closing the gap for underrepresented students in AP.
Another prong encompasses a “fundamental attitudinal change” propelled by professional development, while the third has addressed public relations work with parents and students around the AP programs, Churchill said.
Both District 200 and District 155, along with Huntley Community School District 158, made the sixth annual AP Honor Roll, which recognizes school districts that made significant strides in increased AP access while maintaining or increasing achievement on exams.
“One of my core beliefs is that everyone rises to the expectations set for them, and I think AP is a perfect chance for that,” Tafoya said.