Why are There so Few BIPOC Students in AP Classes?

   Students’ school schedules vary considerably depending on a student’s academic capabilities and responsibilities. Whether sticking to non-weighted courses, cramming all advanced classes possible or finding a sweet in-between, UC High’s student population takes a wide variety of subjects tackling a rich group of topics. Yet, an undeniable truth has remained year after year: there are major differences between the demographics of students in more rigorous classes and those in standard ones. The notable socioeconomic and ethnic gap between students in advanced and regular courses is a complicated, worrying issue, one that students, the school and the district alike must strive to improve.

   According to the Dashboard created by the San Diego Unified School District’s Office of Graduation, UC High’s students are predominantly Latinx, making up 38.3 percent of the student population. 35.7 percent of students identify as White, 10.4 percent as two or more ethnicities, 9.6 percent as Asian, 3.4 percent as Black, 1.9 percent as Filipino, 0.3 percent as American Indian/Alaska Native, and 0.2 percent as Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander.

   This racial breakdown, though, is not reflected in the population of various classes, particularly AP, Honors, and advanced classes. Overall, 46.3 percent of students in advanced classes identify as White, 22.4 percent as Latinx, 14.3 percent as Asian, 11.8 percent as of two or more ethnicities, 2.2 percent as Black, 2.1 percent as Filipino, 0.6 percent as American Indian/Alaska Native, and 0.2 percent as Native Hawaiian. On the other hand, “regular” courses are populated quite differently; 44.9 percent of students are Latinx, 31.4 percent White, 9.9 percent of two or more ethnicities, 7.6 percent Asian, 3.9 percent Black, 1.9 percent Filipino, 0.2 percent Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and 0.2 percent American Indian/Alaska Native. According to Principal Michael Paredes, the dashboard’s information is based on Semester One grades.

   This phenomenon is not reserved for only the most intimidating of weighted courses. Across Honors Precalculus’ three periods, for example, 52 percent of students are White, 16.7 percent Asian, 15.7 percent Latinx, and 10.8 percent as two or more ethnicities. In AP World History, 44.3 percent of students are White, 22.1 percent Asian, 15.6 percent Latinx, 14.8 percent of two or more ethnicities, and 1.6 percent Filipino. As per the data, there is not a single solely Black-identifying student across all four periods of the course. However, according to Paredes, “…students who list under ‘Two or More Races’ are not included in the BIPOC grouping – so theoretically, there may be students who identify as Black in some of the classes.” The only AP class with a predominantly non-White population is AP Spanish, with 93.9 percent of students identifying as Latinx. AP Computer Science Principles is the only other AP class that does not have over 40 percent White students.

   The solution to this problem is most definitely not to reduce the school’s rigorous courses; all students are in different places in their academic careers, and the goal should not be to bring down others in hope that the rest will catch up. Rather, counselors and teachers must encourage all students to take the advanced classes best suited for them, better preparing them for college and helping them exceed their personal expectations. Students may not see their potential to enroll in courses that will not only challenge them academically but show personal improvement, hence the importance for students to support fellow classmates in opting for a more demanding schedule. Many students have heard stories of peers being discouraged from taking more rigorous subjects or counselors placing them in less advanced classes, including Junior Wendy Kissinger. “If a counselor decides you shouldn’t be in a class, there is not much you can do,” said Kissinger. She added, “When students are kept from more rigorous courses, we keep them away from great opportunities and put a limit on their potential.”

   Head Counselor Kelsey Bradshaw said, “We want students to be challenged, but to also be realistic about what it takes to be successful in an Honors/AP course. I worry about students’ mental health and what happens if a student is not successful in that advanced level class.” Bradshaw added that the commitment and balance of other aspects of life should be equally considered.

      It’s easy to argue that there is nothing stopping students from selecting tougher classes, but the external issues impacting a major part of the school population deserve to be considered in this discussion. “I think discouragement comes from all sides. Many students have friends who are in regular classes that want them to stay in the same classes as them. Teachers may not support them, and others may show reluctance,” said Kissinger.

   Well accustomed to being one of the few Latinx students in her weighted courses, Junior Stephanie Pulido has a clear understanding of the reasons behind this divide. “I feel oftentimes Hispanics [and other minority groups] don’t have the same educational support at home that others are blessed with because many Hispanics in our school are first generation [college-bound] and don’t have their parents to rely on for help. This understandingly stops them from challenging themselves with courses like APs,” said Pulido. She added, “Another obstacle that comes into play is money, as one might worry about affording a tutor or any other educational support.”

   Other societal pressures can shut down a student’s ambition to challenge themselves. Though the specific data may not be available, one may assume that most students in advanced classes live around the University City area, whereas a large percentage of those taking regular classes live further away from the school. Many of these students’ caretakers may work long shifts, meaning they must rely on public transportation or driving themselves to get to school and their other commitments. Add to this the need to work or take care of siblings to support families for many, and one starts to understand why some may not want to take courses that might make their lives more stressful.

    However, Paredes has begun working on a school-wide plan to encourage more students to join advanced courses. He said, “This initiative is still in the early stages, but the idea is that teachers would continue working in collaboration with counselors to identify students prior to articulation based on their success in specific classes. The [District] dashboard will serve as a resource for teachers, counselors, and administration to be more informed going into those conversations.” Students will be encouraged to take more rigorous courses in subjects in which they are already performing well, in order to hopefully make the jump up not too difficult.

   Pulido stressed, “It is very important for Hispanics to be encouraged by counselors and teachers to take these courses so they too can pursue a successful life after graduation. These courses teach you important skills that regular classes don’t and make opportunities available because they are teaching skills that are appealing to colleges. It is crucial that free educational resources are offered to students as knowing support is available could influence them to take more advanced classes and be confident in themselves.”

   There is no benefit in placing the blame for this phenomenon on any particular group, as this is the result of many different circumstances within students’ lives. This is by no means a one-solution-fits-all issue; on the contrary, many factors lie beyond the school itself. As a result, students, teachers, counselors and family must lift each other up to seek the right advanced courses for individuals. Teachers must motivate driven individuals to widen their skillset, and the district must create initiatives (like Paredes’) to change this substantial inequity. It’s the very least we can do to hopefully, over time, even out the playing field.