DeKalb is a university town. But even growing up in the shadow of Northern Illinois University, that doesn’t mean every student sees themselves as a potential college student.
Advanced Placement classes are one way to make a student feel college-ready. They can also earn actual college credit from them.
Equal Opportunity Schools aims to close racial and economic gaps prevalent in AP programs. They say students in advanced placement classes rarely reflect their school’s demographics: only around 2% of the time.
This is the second year DeKalb High School has been partnered with them. Most of last year was spent jumpstarting the program. Most of last year was spent getting it off the ground.
“It felt like building the plane in midair,” said James Horne, DeKalb High School principal.
It’s done through data analysis as well as student and staff surveys. The staff nominate students they think could be in AP, and students nominate staff they see as “trusted adults” to support them.
In those surveys, they get to point out the barriers in the way of taking those courses.
That can look like “A sense of belonging, is advanced coursework for me? Do people believe in me? Are my peers going to be there? How am I going to interact with people once I'm in that class?” said Horne.
Horne says he remembers those same invisible lines between those who have always been in accelerated classes and those who weren’t.
“If they don't feel that sense of belonging, then a lot of times they don't walk into that room,” he said. “We're giving them permission to walk into that room.”
Permission is one of the most important aspects of the program. And that goes for teachers too. Horne says students may be aware of the programs, but it’s a lot different to be tapped on the shoulder and told by a teacher you’d be a good fit.
“That is something all of our teachers long for. But because of the demands and class sizes and the things that they face every day, being able to bring that to the table and really nurture that student-teacher trust can’t be underestimated,” said Vicky Tusken, the DeKalb School District’s secondary curriculum coordinator.
In year one, they added around 80 new students to AP classes. Those new students are also more representative of the district’s diverse student population.
But when you have so many students who may have never taken an advanced course before, teachers need more tools to help them succeed.
For example, Horne says one teacher told him they had a student who was doing well but struggled with the complexity of some of the multiple-choice AP tests.
“The responses on an AP test are a little bit different than you would see in a normal class,” he said. “So what she's having to do is give some analysis techniques to that student that the student otherwise probably wouldn't have had.”
In order to get college credit from AP classes, students have to pass an AP test. Students identified as part of the Equal Opportunity Schools program will take them in the spring.
The tests can be a financial burden for students. They cost $94 a pop. Right now, DeKalb is covering the cost of one test per student.
But some students want to take more than one test to earn as many college credits as possible. District officials say they’re looking into State Board of Education grants to potentially expand test reimbursement.
Others worry throwing new students into advanced classes could set them up to fail.
Sasha Rabkin says that’s normally not the case. He’s the chief strategy officer at Equal Opportunity Schools.
“Our data shows that the desegregation doesn't lead to a drop in average pass rates, it doesn't lead to a drop in average grade earned in those classes,” he said.
He says three-quarters of students first identified pass their first AP courses.
But Horne says the benefits of the program go beyond test scores.
“It's all about having enriching opportunities for students,” he said.
And a chance for them to feel better prepared for that big step to college.