This year, 19 of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ 31 high schools made the Challenge Index list, which ranks schools based on participation in Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge programs. The index is calculated by taking the number of exams given for any of the three programs and then dividing that number by the number of graduating seniors from the same school.
There is a disparity in how many advanced courses are offered across the district. More are given at schools with predominately white and high-income enrollments, than those with predominately low-income students and students of color.
East Mecklenburg High School in southeast Charlotte is one predominantly minority and low-income school where officials are having some success in steering students into IB and AP courses.
Seventeen advanced courses are offered at East Meck. School officials would like to have more, but the focus the last couple years has been on changing the makeup of existing classes.
“We’re trying to get more of our lower income and minority students into higher level classes to help increase their likelihood of going to college," said East Meck Assistant Principal Phillip Price.
Price oversees the school’s AP and IB courses. He said they are having a lot of success that is reflected in the latest data.
“The [number] of African-American students that we had enrolled or registered for classes for this year [compared] to the year before was up 300 percent,” Price said. “Hispanic students [showed] similar numbers. It was 200 to 300 percent increase in enrollments. Our outreach program to get these kids involved was very successful."
That success is reflected in the Challenge Index of CMS high schools. East Meck ranks sixth in the district, just behind South Meck High School, which offers 31 AP courses.
This means that East Meck is doing a good job of challenging all of its students.
The school's ranking stands out because East Meck has the demographics of schools that traditionally rank low in academic achievement and in how much they push students. Sixty-one percent of the study body is low income, and 70 percent are black or Hispanic.
East Meck had some help in getting more of these students in AP courses from Equal Opportunity Schools, an organization that works with hundreds of schools nationwide — and 10 schools in CMS — to get more low-income students and students of color enrolled in academically challenging programs.
Starting last year, all students took an in-depth EOS survey that helped school officials to better target students capable of passing an advanced course.
“The students identified their own skills," Price said." [Answers like] I’m a hard worker, I do my homework on time, I ask questions, I’m inquisitive and I want to learn more in class."
EOS officials compiled the survey results — which also included students’ perceptions of their weaknesses — state test scores, GPAs, and their likes and dislikes, so they can be steered to advanced courses that interest them. The data also gave officials insight into students’ false perceptions about themselves and advanced classes, such as thinking their grades were not good enough or seeing having no internet connection at home as a barrier. Price also said there was another perceived obstacle.
“[Some students say] I don’t feel welcome in a class like that because people there are a lot of people who don’t look like me or don’t come from a similar background," he said.
“Some students don’t know they were even able to take these courses," Price said. "We make sure they know everything about them and understand the curriculum. We try to break down those barriers so they can see their potential and we can get them involved in classes that will help them be successful.”
Price said they identified nearly 500 students who had the potential to do well in advanced courses but had not signed up for one. They sent them letters inviting them to sign up for an advanced class, met with them individually and convinced 90 percent to take an AP or IB class.
Senior Cameron Milton is one of those students. He’s taking AP Psychology and English.
“My teacher told me you get a lot of knowledge on stuff that college kids are learning, and I wanted to take the class to see if I can boost my GPA and get more information than other classes were giving,” Milton said. "It’s definitely a challenge and definitely more work, but it seems as like as long as you pace yourself, it should be easy to get done."
Milton said on his first day in the classes, it was obvious that the other students had taken AP classes before and knew what to expect. In the survey, some students said this made them feel isolated, but not Milton.
“I’m a pretty friendly person so I didn’t feel like I was left out of anything. I didn’t say I’d fit right in, but I didn’t feel alone or anything in there,” Milton said.
He also said he wished he'd taken an AP class last year.
“I feel I’d be in a better position now if I’d taken one last year," Milton said.
He said his goal is, “To make it out alive."
"Hopefully I’ll pass,” he said with a laugh.
Down the hall, senior Curtis Jones is also taking his first advanced course. He learned about an advanced theater class last year but was reluctant to sign up.
“Honestly, it sounded hard so I didn’t really want to take the challenge at first,” Jones said. “But as I thought about it, I decided it was a good thing to do.”
The EOS surveys also asked students to identify someone at school who they trusted the most, ranging from teachers, administrators, maintenance people and cafeteria workers. To keep these first time AP and IB students on track, Price said those staffers are now the students’ mentors.
“We ask them to track them [the students] throughout the course of the year and stay on them,” Price said. “If someone is trying to drop a class, that’s a conference with the guidance counselor. They would have their trusted adult involved in that too because we don’t want people to take the easy way out.”
The surveys also identified other obstacles, like transportation. Price said many students didn’t sign up for advanced classes because they had no way to get home if they have to stay after school for tutoring or an assignment. So, the school gives them bus fare when that happens.
East Meck’s success may be hard to duplicate at other district high schools that do not have a rigorous IB program and offer fewer AP classes, such as Harding University that only has five courses. It’s difficult to push students when the opportunity isn’t there in the first place.
MORE ON THE CHALLENGE INDEX
- Is CMS Challenging Enough? A Look At The District Through The Challenge Index - Learn more about how Charlotte schools rank
- Why CMS, And All Schools, Should Open Up Advanced Classes To Every Student - Why this columnist believes all students should take AP courses
- More Students Of Color Enrolling In Advanced Classes At East Mecklenburg High School - WFAE reporter Gwendolyn Glenn examines how this predominantly low-income and minority school challenges its students
- Charlotte Talks: Where Do Charlotte High Schools Rank In National Index? - A conversation with Jay Mathews, former CMS superintendent Eric Smith, and Frank Barnes, the district's chief accountability officer
- What Is the Challenge Index And How It Came To Be - The history of America's Most Challenging High Schools list