Teachers and administrators at Santa Monica High School had seen it happen far too often: A student they believed was qualified to take an Advanced Placement class signs up and then quits or they decide not to enroll altogether.
It was just another troublesome facet of the longstanding academic achievement gap between minority students and their peers that has existed for years across the Santa Monica-Malibu school district.
“We know we have students who may feel in their heart they’re not welcome or good enough,” said Terry Deloria, assistant superintendent for educational services. “We want to make sure there are support system in place to help.”
Over the last year, educators at Samohi have taken steps to improve AP participation figures among minority and low-income students.
And apparently, they’re working. According to data presented to the local Board of Education at its Jan. 21 meeting, more students who were identified as capable of handling AP coursework were enrolled in the advanced classes.
Approximately 190 students who were deemed to have the potential to take an AP class were not enrolled in one this year, a 20-percent decrease from the 239 who fit that description during the 2014-15 school year.
“We are very ecstatic about the progress we’ve made so far,” house principal Regina Zurbano said. “It validates the work that we did. But we know we have a lot of work to do. We want to ensure that the work that we do, do is targeted and laser-focused. We have increased overall numbers, but we still recognize there are students we can outreach to and encourage to take more rigorous courses at Samohi.”
AP courses are meant not only to prepare students for college-level academics but also to help them improve their chances of getting into four-year universities. Hispanic and African-American students at Samohi have had disproportionately low rates of participation.
Board member Craig Foster commended officials for making progress on an equity and access issue that has persisted in the district.
“You guys thought this through, you understood a problem we are all really concerned about, you put in place really smart stuff and it worked meaningfully,” he said. “And that was only the first year. These are the kinds of things this board has been fighting for, for a really long time, and you are really moving the needle.”
To improve participation rates, Samohi officials had students take surveys about their academic interests, college goals and social-emotional wellbeing. They identified students who could potentially benefit from AP classes, and they held assemblies and parent nights about the courses.
The school also launched an AP ambassadors program wherein students who have been successful in AP courses mentor peers who are new to the classes. The ambassadors meet on a monthly basis and are in regular contact with their mentees, officials said.
Board member Oscar de la Torre called the success of the initiative a “milestone” for the district, saying increased participation among minority students helps them feel like they belong. He said more professional development is needed to make sure teachers are supporting students who are historically underrepresented.
Board member Maria Leon-Vazquez also praised the efforts to get more students into AP classes, but she said she’d like to see data on how first-time students fared.
“I’m curious to see how many of these students were successful on the tests,” she said.