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Making Advanced Courses Equitable Is A Priority For CMS

Gwendolyn Glenn / WFAE
AP statistics class at East Mecklenburg High School.

This year, 19 of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' 31 high schools made the 2018 Challenge Index list that ranks Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs nationally — not by test scores, but by the number of students from a school who took an AP or IB exam.

More than 60 percent of CMS high schools made the list, which is good, but the programs are not equal in terms of course offerings. Fewer advanced courses are offered in schools that have high numbers of low-income students and students of color.

For example, Ardrey Kell has 27 AP courses. Garinger High only has 10. Ardrey Kell leads the index, while Garinger didn’t make the list. CMS Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said he realizes there’s a problem.

CMS Superintendent Clayton Wilcox
Credit Gwendolyn Glenn / WFAE
CMS Superintendent Clayton Wilcox.

“If you look today at Ardrey Kell or Garinger, what you see is we need work to make sure that kids at Garinger have the same access without hurting the kids at  Ardrey Kell,” Wilcox said.

Myers Park, Providence, Hough and South Mecklenburg high schools follow Ardrey Kell at the top of the index. All are predominantly white, high-income schools that offer between 26 and 31 AP courses.

But the eight predominantly low-income and minority schools that made the index only offer between eight and 19 AP courses. The gap is even wider for schools that did not make the list, which offer between five and 15 advanced courses. Wilcox said it will take time to close the gap.

“Because not only do you have to help build the kids competence and skills to be ready to take those classes," he said, "But you have to develop the teachers to teach those classes as well."

“You know that’s a bunch of bull,” school board member Ruby Jones said. Jones is a retired CMS teacher and administrator, and a state education department advisor. She said many students in schools with few advanced courses could pass them if they were available. According to Jones, historically, the curriculum at schools with high-income students has been more challenging than courses offered at low-income schools.

CMS school board member Ruby Jones.
Credit Ruby Jones
CMS school board member Ruby Jones.

“Let’s give them just the basics and the haves — the privileged persons — are seen as the ones who need this kind of quality of education,” Jones said.

Jones said she thinks Wilcox is committed to making changes, but disagrees with his belief that part of the disparity between low- and high-income schools is because more teachers need to be trained in AP and IB instruction.

“We train for what we want. It’s a cop out," Jones said. "I mean, yes, what you decide is your goal you work like all hell to get to it. It’s not a goal."

CMS’ chief equity officer Frank Barnes said getting more teachers certified in AP and IB instruction is a priority.

“That’s something we are investing in every year, every summer, to increase the number of teachers in targeted areas where there appears to be more student interest and more student aptitude to succeed,” Barnes said.

But placing teachers where there is more perceived demand is what some education officials say is part of the problem.

“In the past, we sort of looked at it as being driven by demand,” school board member Elyse Dashew said. “So if enough students signed up for a class, then you can staff a teacher and can have the class. But how can students sign up for it if they don’t even know it’s an option? If they don’t see other students taking this course [and] if it’s not listed in the catalogue?"

"So, we have to figure out a way to break that cycle," Dashew said. "And that is going to take a different way of looking at things. It will take some creative solutions.”

Which is what CMS officials say they are doing. The district has a new academic officer, Brian Kingsley. He said his first assignment is to do an in-depth analysis of all CMS’ advanced course programs.

“We also want to look at the membership of those courses,” Kingsley said. “It’s really critical that we provide equal access to those courses, whether you are in one school in one area of our district or another.”

District officials say they are planning to set specific targets for the percentage of students they want to see enrolled in advanced courses. Last year, Barnes said they began identifying students in lower grades who have the aptitude or interest in taking AP and IB courses, and plan to prepare them for those courses.

Credit James Ford
James Ford, a former CMS teacher and NC Teacher of the Year says, "What you look like and where you go to school determines (your) access to rigorous courses of study."

But the elephant in the room is race. Education consultant James Ford said CMS focuses on the economic status of students when looking at disparities in advanced course offerings, but not the fact that most of the students in schools with fewer challenging courses are of color. Ford said both need to be acknowledged. He taught at Garinger High School, which has mainly low-income students of color. Garinger only offers 10 Advanced Placement courses.

“What we do know is it’s a racialized opportunity gap and whether it’s intentional or not, it breaks along lines of race and socio-economic status,” Ford said. “What you look like and where you go to school determines access and rigorous courses of study.”

College Board officials, who administer AP courses, also have found that there is both a racial and income gap when it comes to access to advanced courses. Ford thinks part of it has to do with low expectations for students of color, even when they excel in their early years.

“Let’s be frank, the education system has a very sordid history of tracking students, pushing them along certain courses of study that sort of shuffles them into certain social castes,” Ford said.

“Unfortunately, a lot of that has been according to race and when it comes to low income and students of color, a lot of students end up falling through the cracks," he said. "A lot of affluent and a lot of white kids end up being shoveled into those rigorous classes who haven’t proven a level of aptitude that would require one to be in the AP or IB classes.

About 85 percent of students at West Mecklenburg High School are of color and just under 35 percent are low income. Eleven AP courses are offered there. The school’s PTA Treasurer Colin Pinckney said he’s pleased with the quality of the advanced courses his children took at West Meck, and would like to see more.

“But I know that West Meck is also pushed to work readiness as part of the curriculum, providing classes that students can take and be job-ready if they didn’t go to college,” Pinckney said.

The disparities at CMS are not unique to the district. State Board of Education Chair Eric Davis said it’s a statewide problem.

“It’s a complex issue right at the heart of the equity issues we face in North Carolina and that we have to solve,” Davis said. “There are far too many students that are not getting the level of preparation or the opportunity to take courses like you describe and to reach the level of academic achievement that we all need them to.”

Davis said they are getting assistance from the Greensboro-based Racial Equity Institute in developing a state strategic state plan to close the income and racial gap associated with advanced course programs. He and CMS officials say the issue is a top priority because the data is clear that more needs to be done and now.

Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.