According to yearly data from Mesa Public Schools, the number of students enrolled in Advanced Placement courses increased by 20 percent from September 2015 to September 2016.
“We’ve really redoubled on the efforts from the AP perspective, and in 2016, participation numbers turned right around,” Advanced Placement district specialist Marcia Kneisley said.
From the prior year, all six high schools saw their individual participation numbers increase in 2016. Mesa High School saw the biggest jump, with 264 more total seats filled, followed by Red Mountain with 201, Skyline with 164, Westwood with 145, Dobson with 131 and Mesa Mountain View with 75 more. This data illustrated the change in total seats filled, but for context, Mountain View already had 1,000-plus students enrolled in 2015; thus, their numbers didn’t change that much.
[The graphic at https://infogr.am/advanced_placement_course_enrollment_at_mesa_high_schools shows the raw totals of seats filled at each of the six public high schools in Mesa. Graphic created with with https://infogr.am/ by Joe Jacquez]
Ms. Kneisley said participation numbers at individual schools compare total seats filled in AP classes, so if one student is taking two advanced classes, they are counted twice.
As a result of increasing tuition at four-year universities, Ms. Kneisley said many students avoided signing up for advanced placement because course material prepares students to eventually earn a bachelor’s degree. The district realized academic support was crucial and that they needed to do more.
“Advanced placement classes are certainly not limited to those students, because they are high rigor and the skills that are taught in AP prepare students for college and university work, the two align very closely,” Ms. Kneisley said.
She said kids thinking about attending community college because they can’t afford the cost of a four-year university aren’t thinking about taking AP classes. She said the district started to see its numbers drop and decided to reverse this trend.
“As a district, we made the effort to correct the assumption that because I am going to community college, AP won’t help me, because some community colleges do expect some AP credits, including Mesa Community College, which is the most common one for our students,” Ms. Kneisley said.
Early in the 2015-16 school year, in an effort to increase participation, the district collaborated with Equal Opportunity Schools, an education-reform national nonprofit that collaborates with public high schools. The organization works with school leaders to close race and income gaps for enrollment and success in their AP and International Bachelorette programs.
Partnership director Aurora Parish works with continuing partnerships and was assigned to Mesa this year.
“We partnered with Mesa out of the district’s own work related to advanced academic programs, such as AP,” Ms. Parish said. “We work with both the district and the high schools in the district to survey students and get deep data about those student’s experiences and learning mindsets that might not generally be considered when we’re looking at students at AP.”
The data collected by Equal Opportunity Schools gave administrators a better sense of which students to talk to and encourage, officials said.
During year one, Ms. Parish said they helped identify and place an additional 598 underrepresented students in AP, compared to the prior year. This year, Ms. Parish said schools are in the middle of student outreach and so far have enrolled an additional 208 underrepresented students in AP.
As part of the EOS process, AP committees, made up of teachers and administrators, were formed early in the 2015-16 school year at all six Mesa area high schools.
Ms. Kneisley said committee members told students that AP courses could help them afford university tuition because of the potential to earn college credit, but she said committee members also encouraged students to look at the bigger picture of taking challenging courses, beyond free credits.
Westwood High vice principal Shoushana Cleary said the school wanted to keep their process simple. After spring registration, she and two councilors held targeted group meetings in the career center with African American, Native American and Hispanic and Latino students identified by Equal Opportunity’s survey.
“We asked students about AP, gave them more information and answered their questions,” Ms. Cleary said. “We also asked them about barriers they have faced when deciding to sign up.”
After the group meetings, Ms. Cleary said they would sit one-on-one with students. One student had a 4.0 GPA and had never enrolled in one AP course.
“Most of them, before they even left the room, were changing their schedule and signing up for an AP class,” she said. “The kids that did the meetings all completed an AP course with a passing grade. It’s eye opening that had we not done this program, these programs would have slipped through the cracks.”
Ms. Parish and Ms. Cleary agreed: taking the AP exam is an extra perk that can come with the larger benefits.
“There have been studies that have confirmed that students from all races and levels of income are 10-20% percent more likely to complete college if they have ever taken an AP course, regardless of whether or not they took or passed an exam,” Ms. Parish said. “For all of these reasons, the growth in AP participation in Mesa Public Schools should be celebrated as setting the foundation for more diverse students in the district to have a stronger foundation for achieving their college goals.”
Joe Jacquez is a journalism student at the Arizona State University Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and wrote the article as a class assignment.