At East High School in Madison, Wisconsin, an equity vision statement has long defined the faculty’s commitment to meeting the needs of every student:
“East High School is intentional in creating an inclusive and supportive environment where students and families feel safe and connected to staff and the community, diverse identities are celebrated and promoted, and high expectations and equitable access to rigor are the norm in every classroom so that every student graduates college, career and community ready.”
Over the years, though, East found it was falling short of its vision when it came to “equitable access to rigor.” Specifically, they had a significant equity gap in Advanced Placement (AP) class enrollment. Here’s how they found a way to close that gap with help from an NWEA® Educators for Equity grant.
East High School is one of the most diverse high schools in Wisconsin, with Latinx and black students accounting for the majority of those attending the school. Despite their prevalence in East’s hallways, these students have been noticeably absent from AP classes year after year. “In 2007–2008, we had eight Latino and seven black students enrolled in AP courses, compared to 166 white students,” says interim principal Brendan Kearney. Realizing how off balance AP enrollments were, East faculty focused on ways to make the classes more accessible to more students. Their efforts paid off.
When we surveyed students about their experiences in AP classes, many of them expressed a need for more tutoring and small group support outside the classroom.”
“Last year we had 126 Latino, 104 black, and 246 white students enrolled,” says Brendan. “We’ve seen significant gains among Asian students as well, and are close to proportional representation. We are proud of the gains, particularly over the last few years, but we still have a lot of work to do to see that our AP classroom looks like the hallways of our building. Addressing our gaps is still a priority.”
Listening to students
To continue to reduce the disparity, Brendan and school faculty decided to create an after-hours study center staffed by AP teachers. “When we surveyed students about their experiences in AP classes, many of them expressed a need for more tutoring and small group support outside the classroom.” East’s biggest challenge? How to fund the study center. That’s how Brendan and school staff found their way to the Educators for Equity Grant Program.
East has found that the [AP] study center is creating opportunities for students to connect and build relationships with peers and with staff as well.”
Brendan explains, “NWEA was looking to fund equity work in schools like ours—a public school serving a diverse student population with a lot of need and a staff committed to seeing all students succeed, especially those who historically have had limited opportunity to do so. That really appealed to us.”
Providing extra support
Currently open three days a week, the study center is available to students on a walk-in basis. Brendan says they will explore expanding the hours and days as needed, especially as students prepare for AP exams. While outreach has targeted students of color and first-time AP students, all kids are welcome to use it. Staff members rotate through the week so students can work with teachers in different subject areas on different days.
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Well over 200 students had signed in to the study center within just a few weeks of its opening in October 2019. Brendan says the attendance proves that students want this kind of support, even if they aren’t asking for it. “If you provide them with this type of resource and do the outreach to make sure it reaches students who need it, they will make use of it.”
[S]tudents will rise to the occasion if given the opportunity they deserve and the support they need.”
There are benefits beyond student performance in AP classes, too. East has found that the study center is creating opportunities for students to connect and build relationships with peers and with staff as well.
Advice to other educators
Brendan has words of wisdom for other educators: “To anyone who is looking to break down access barriers to AP courses in their school, know that whatever you may hear from resisters or naysayers, the students will rise to the occasion if given the opportunity they deserve and the support they need. Ours certainly have at East, and it is changing life trajectories.”
“If you believe in social justice education, you have to actively dismantle systems that segregate students along racial lines,” he adds. “This is one of those systems.”
You could be awarded a grant to help improve equity at your school, too. Apply for an Educators for Equity grant by June 1.