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Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017 12:11 am

Reaching high

District 186 pushes for academic excellence

Keyera Harshaw, Liam McNear and Chase Rath consider a point made by teacher Ruby Latif during an advanced placement literature class at Southeast High School.


Anyone who doubts the intellectual powers of public high school students need only watch Ruby Latif teach advanced placement literature to seniors at Southeast High School.

The year’s reading list includes nine books, plus short stories and poetry. The Awakening. Oedipus Rex. Hamlet. The Kite Runner. Students have just finished Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and are comparing the Victorian age novel to Apocalypse Now, the 1979 film directed by Francis Ford Coppola, who used Conrad’s book as a template to tell the tale of a journey up a Southeast Asian river. Today, the students have divided into groups to discuss such topics as character traits, imperialism and imagery before the class comes together to talk about similarities and differences between the movie and novel.

“Marlow, he’s seeking experience for the experience,” one student tells her colleagues. “I feel like Marlow knew his purpose – he was an adventurer.”

“This guy’s questioning himself, but he’s kind of worried about questioning himself,” another student offers when discussion turns to Capt. Benjamin Willard, Marlow’s cinematic parallel who is sent on a secret mission to Cambodia.

Talk turns to imperialism. One student argues that the United States wasn’t acting as an imperialistic force in Southeast Asia. After all, he points out, we were invited by South Vietnam, and we lost a ton of money – it’s not like we plundered the place for gold and ivory.

“We didn’t get anything out of it,” he asserts. Someone counters: “We make tons of money off war.” A third student jumps in.

“Imperialism is when you state your dominance over a culture,” she says. “We played music as we bombed them in the movie.”

Class is drawing to a close. Syntax has been perfect. No one has spoken out of turn or disrespectfully, no one has interrupted, even when there have been disagreements. Latif occasionally has steered discussion but she has mostly let students learn from each other. A few times, she recommends books. She mentions The Man in the High Castle, an alternative history novel written by Phillip Dick in 1962 that has been turned into a television series.

“Why don’t we just watch a bunch of movies and stop learning?” asks a student. She sounds serious.

“It is a book,” Latif responds.

Troubling truths

While Latif’s class impresses, it is also an example of what’s wrong with advanced placement classes in Springfield School District 186.

Of the 15 students, just three are black, and the racial disparity between Latif’s class and the rest of the student body becomes obvious as the students head out into a hallway populated by hundreds of African American students who comprise 50 percent of the student body at Southeast. Less than 40 percent of Southeast students are white. Latif’s class is also small. While small classes may be good for students, Latif says that she can effectively teach as many as 24.

Small classes dominated by white kids underscore a troubling truth: District 186 has not done a good job of getting minority students into academically challenging courses, and the bad news doesn’t end there. Advanced placement, or AP, classes offer students the chance to earn college credit if they score sufficiently high marks on AP exams given each spring. More than 30 tests are available – in theory, a student who took enough AP courses and passed enough tests could enter college as a junior. But a large percentage of District 186 students in AP courses skip the exams.

Springfield High School students enrolled in AP courses last year were eligible to take 710 AP exams (some students were enrolled in more than one AP course), but only 288 tests were taken, with 183 scores sufficiently high to earn college credit. That’s a pass rate of nearly 64 percent, above the national average. Performance plummets elsewhere. At Southeast, 165 of a potential 281 exams were taken, with 65 results sufficient to earn college credit – a pass rate of 39 percent, a full 20 points below the national average. At Lanphier High School, where 360 AP exams could have been taken, students last year took just 61 exams, with 28 passing grades awarded, a pass rate of 49 percent.

Latif’s students take exams no matter what. If they don’t take the AP exam that can earn them college credits, she gives versions of the test that don’t count. It’s a way to verify teaching skills. “I need to test myself – how do I know if I’ve been teaching, whether they’ve got it,” she explains. Last year, she recalls, two students whom she was certain would score high didn’t take the test that mattered. “I begged them, literally: Go take the test,” Latif says. Sure enough, they both got 5s, the highest possible score, on the test she gave that didn’t count.

Superintendent Jennifer Gill, who’s been running the district since 2014, doesn’t shy from the numbers or make excuses.

“I have to own it,” she says. “To be honest, some of it (test statistics report) was hard to read.”

Gill says that she’s determined to make things better. Toward that end, she’s brought in Equal Opportunity Schools (EOS), a Seattle-based nonprofit group that operates on a simple premise: Skin color doesn’t determine intelligence and all kids rise to expectations.

Whether that premise will become reality remains to be seen in a district that has languished in test scores, graduation rates and a palpable sense that solutions aren’t simple.

A push for AP

For Reid Saaris, EOS executive director, it began in high school in Bellevue, an upscale Seattle suburb.

He was 16 and headed toward great things. Encouraged by his family, he enrolled in AP courses. Meanwhile, he says, an equally bright friend whose mother had dropped out of high school took less-challenging classes. No one urged his friend to take AP courses. He ultimately made it to college, Saaris says, but it was tougher than it should have been.

The story that has stuck with Saaris, who didn’t end up a typical magna cum laude graduate from Harvard. Instead of going to law school or Wall Street, he became a public school teacher at Battery Creek High School in Beaufort, South Carolina. Saaris in a biography posted on the website of EOS, which he founded after earning an MBA and master’s in education from Stanford, says that he taught history, psychology, philosophy and economics for three years while also running the school’s AP program. He says that he once walked a promising student to the school office to ensure that he was enrolled in AP courses. And Saaris aims to do the same thing in schools throughout the nation.

Mariah Brooks, standing, discusses literary character traits with fellow students Baylee Geist, Mackenzie Matthews and Abigail Myers.

Saaris figures more than 500,000 low-income and minority students with AP chops aren’t enrolled in AP classes. Researchers say that black students are most likely to be overlooked. Based on PSAT scores, the College Board, which administers AP exams, reported in 2014 that as many as seven out of ten black students with potential to succeed in AP classes aren’t enrolled.

Saaris has landed big names on EOS’s board of directors, including a Facebook vice president, and he’s gotten financial support from heavyweight charities such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. EOS is part of a consortium of business, educational and charitable organizations dubbed Lead Higher that has pledged $100 million to enroll 100,000 low-income and minority students in AP courses. And 14 school districts in Illinois, including District 186, have been chosen as early participants.

Gov. Bruce Rauner has pushed for the program. “It’s definitely a priority for the administration,” says Beth Purvis, the governor’s education secretary. “Every student in the state should have a chance for rigorous course work.”

District 186 has paid EOS $75,000 to assess needs and identify students who could benefit from AP classes but are not enrolled. The school district now has 583 students enrolled in AP classes, but EOS says that there should be at least 280 more students, including 202 black kids, enrolled in AP classes to make enrollment in AP classes reflect the racial makeup of the district’s high schools. The numbers in Springfield are typical, according to EOS.

“Springfield isn’t out of the norm,” Saaris says.

Based on grades, test scores and questionnaires completed by students, EOS and district officials have identified targets whose photos, GPAs and other pertinent information has been printed up on cards akin to baseball cards. The district now is trying to convince prospects to enroll in AP classes next fall, with administrators, counselors and teachers pitching students and their families.

The assessment conducted last year included surveys of almost 3,500 high school students and nearly 300 staff members, including 241 teachers. The results suggest academic rigor isn’t a high priority for everyone. Staff members in Springfield were less likely than staff members in other school districts to say that disproportionately low numbers of minorities and low-income students enrolled in AP classes should be a top priority for the district, and they were also less likely than staff elsewhere to say that addressing disproportionately low numbers of minorities and low-income students entering and completing college should be a top priority. Meanwhile, students who aren’t in AP say courses aren’t tough – fewer than 20 percent of District 186 students not enrolled in AP courses said classes were either challenging or very challenging, matching results from other districts.

If nothing else, it’s a big aircraft carrier to turn. Gill says that she’s up to the task. She vows to work personally and persistently to get more students enrolled in AP classes and ensure that they do well. Are kids smarter than we think? The superintendent smiles.

“Yes,” she answers. “Most definitely.”

Success stories

Districts outside Springfield rave about EOS.

“It’s the most inspiring work I’ve done in my career,” says Jeffrey Feucht, assistant superintendent for educational services for Glenbard School District 87, just west of Chicago.

Glenbard has long had a robust AP program, with the number of AP tests taken more than doubling between 2007 and 2016, with pass rates well above state and national averages. But the percentage of minority and low-income students in AP classes didn’t mirror overall enrollment, despite efforts that began in 2008 and included forming a committee of parents, civic leaders, teachers, students and administrators to increase the numbers. That changed with the arrival of EOS a year ago.

In a single year, the gap has been eliminated, with 874 juniors and seniors this school year enrolling in AP classes who might otherwise have taken less challenging courses. Enrollment of low-income black students shot up by 157 percent, there was an 82-percent increase in the number of low-income Hispanic students and a 53-percent increase in low-income white and Asian students. Feucht credits EOS.

“There was some thinking, ‘Why would we partner with this outside group – what could they know that we don’t?’” Feucht recalls. “Their playbook works better.”

While exams won’t be given until May and the district hasn’t analyzed classroom grades of students who likely wouldn’t be in AP courses absent the new approach, Feucht professes no concerns.

“We identified students who had assets to succeed,” Feucht said. “There was not a quota. I’m confident that the kids we found were prepared.”

It doesn’t necessarily matter if a student doesn’t get a 3 or higher on the AP exam, the threshold to earn college credit, Feucht said. Regardless of test scores, he says, AP can change life trajectories.

“Just the experience of doing that challenging course work makes them more likely to succeed,” he says.

AP test scores, GPAs and the number of minority students enrolled in AP courses have gone up at Lynnwood High School in Washington state since EOS came along three years ago, says Mike Piper, Lynnwood assistant principal. The program isn’t perfect, he says. But the new approach has changed Lynnwood High School for the better, he says. The entire school has increased its focus on equity for all students, even those who aren’t in AP courses.

“In my opinion, it has changed the culture of the school,” Piper says. “Nobody wants to go back to where it was before.”

At Leyden School District 212 in Cook County, it’s a case of so-far-so-good midway through the first year of students enrolling in AP classes after having been identified last year via EOS, says Mikkel Storaasli, assistant principal for curriculum and instruction for the district where 65 percent of students are Hispanic and nearly 50 percent are poor.

Nearly 270 more students are enrolled in AP classes this year than last year in Leyden’s two high schools. The first semester grades of AP students targeted last year via EOS were comparable to grades of students who would have been expected to enroll in AP classes without being recruited, Storaasli says. Unlike District 186, Leyden requires AP students to take exams each spring. Last year, 64 percent of Leyden students who took the AP psychology exam last year scored 3s or higher; 60 percent of students who took the AP exam in calculus scored 3s or better.

“If you can succeed here, if you can do this level of work, then you are definitely able to succeed in college,” Storaasli says. “We have kids come back (from college) and tell teachers, ‘Wow, your class was a ton harder.’”

It wasn’t always this way. Storaasli, who once taught high school math in the Leyden district, said that teachers in the 1980s had to lobby to establish AP classes. “There was a thought, ‘Our kids can’t do that,’” Storaasli recalls. “We really had to battle that. If we hold the bar high, they will deliver.”

Stand and deliver

Jaime Escalante is a case study on how AP can succeed and how quickly things can implode.

Immortalized in the 1988 movie Stand and Deliver, Escalante, a Bolivian immigrant, taught calculus at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, where academics were so shaky that the school was in danger of losing accreditation when he arrived in the 1970s. Contrary to the movie, which showed poor Hispanic students moving from simple math to calculus in a single year, Escalante spent years building up lower level math programs to prepare students for the rigors of calculus. He handpicked teachers, and he got critical support from a principal who green-lighted tough classes.

In 1982, Escalante’s students were accused of cheating after 18 passed the AP calculus exam, an unheard-of success rate, especially at a barrio high school. When students retook the exam and passed, Escalante landed in the national spotlight. In 1987, Garfield High ranked seventh in the nation in the number of students who took the AP calculus test, and more students passed than students from Beverly Hills High School. By 1990, as many as 50 Garfield students crowded into calculus classes. Escalante accepted all comers and recruited kids he felt could succeed. Garfield High School became a veritable pipeline to Stanford, MIT, the University of Southern California and other prestigious schools.

By 1991, it was over. The principal who had Escalante’s back moved on. The teachers union complained that large AP classes were at odds with class-size limits mandated in collective bargaining agreements. There was dissension in the faculty. Escalante and his colleagues left Garfield, with the principal labeling them disgruntled former employees and claiming that the math program was “better than ever” in a 1992 Los Angeles Times interview. But the number of Garfield students who passed AP calculus exams plummeted. Escalante died in 2010. Last year, the U.S. Postal Service put his picture on a stamp.

With Escalante proving that brown skin and brilliance are not mutually exclusive, the number of AP classes skyrocketed throughout the United States during the 1980s and 1990s. “I actually got to go out to dinner with him before he passed away, and he said students will rise to the level of expectations,” Saaris says.

Purvis, the governor’s education secretary, says that Escalante’s story is “absolutely relevant” and shows that all students should be welcome in AP classes. But Escalante’s rise and fall underscores certain truths about AP programs that resonate in Springfield.

Teachers and administrators must work together to build successful AP programs. Students going from fractions to advanced calculus in a single year is a Hollywood myth. And building academically rigorous programs in lower grades takes time.

District 186 school board member Mike Zimmers says academic rigor should begin as early as the fifth grade. Latif agrees that senior or junior year is too late for promising students to start taking tough classes.

“This is last minute,” Latif says of her AP literature class at Southeast.

Rosy reports from outside Springfield notwithstanding, Zimmers doesn’t expect miracles. “It usually takes about five years to implement change with something like this,” Zimmers said. “We’re probably not going to see immediate results.”

School board member Chuck Flamini agrees.

“If you really, really want to focus on learning, it has to start really, really early,” Flamini says. “Kids have to be ready for that, and that takes years – it’s an attitudinal thing. Parents have to be on board. A lot of people just don’t understand.”

Flamini pauses. It’s not that he’s against academic excellence or EOS.

“There’s a little skepticism in my voice, you can tell,” Flamini says. “I think it can help. There has to be a starting point. … It’s a very complex problem with a whole bunch of solutions. It can be done. I don’t think this school district is different than any other. We have to do something. At this point, I can’t think of anything that’s better.”

Gill and Zimmers say that AP students aren’t taking exams that can earn them college credit because families might not be able to afford tests, which cost $93 per exam, with a reduced fee of $53 for low-income students from low-income households. Zimmers said students in multiple AP classes have told him that money is an issue.

“What we found is, kids that are in poverty, the cost was prohibitive for them,” Zimmers said. “Each test costs around $90. What they were saying is, we have to pick and choose what we can take. We can’t afford all three tests.”

That seems an easy problem to solve.

“My first response would be, why the heck not?” answers Chris Hembrough, CEO and president of the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce, when asked whether business owners would pay test fees for students with no other means. “That’s insane, if a kid’s taking a class but can’t take the test because of 93 bucks. It would be crazy for us not to do anything and everything we could to find a solution for that. Next time I see Jennifer Gill, I’ll talk to her about a way to formalize something like that.”

Zimmers says that he hadn’t thought to ask the business community for help. Since Gill recently told the State Journal-Register that money is a barrier to taking AP tests, she says the district has received calls from would-be donors, and lawyers have been consulted about setting up a fund to accept donations.

Latif wonders whether students have sufficient motivation. Some clearly do. Consider a Southeast student admitted into Latif’s AP class last year despite not taking a British literature class that is considered a prerequisite. He needed to spend more time and effort than other students, but he scored a 3 on the AP exam and is doing well in college, Latif says.

It is too early to say, Latif says, whether the push to expand AP will succeed. To some extent, it’s out of her hands – her class is at the end of the pipeline, and she’s not the sort to loosen standards. Look at the email she received last fall from a former student who had just been chosen to be a discussion leader in a college literature class.

“I would like to thank you for making me work my tail off during high school in your class,” the student writes from Harvard.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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