Central, Centennial land on honor roll for doubling access to AP classes

Central, Centennial land on honor roll for doubling access to AP classes

CHAMPAIGN — The number of black students taking college-level Advanced Placement exams in Champaign's two public high schools has increased by 100 percent in the past two years.

That, along with a rise in the number of low-income students taking the tests, is why Unit 4 was placed on the College Board's annual AP District Honor Roll this year. Of the 470-plus high school districts in Illinois, just 27 earned the distinction. No other area district was honored.

The College Board is a 114-year-old nonprofit that seeks to expand access to higher education by allowing students to earn college credit before they graduate from high school. Unit 4 was among 547 districts nationally to be honored — largely because of its concerted efforts since 2012 to increase minority enrollment in AP classes at Central and Centennial, according to Laura Taylor, assistant superintendent for achievement and student services.

"In the fall of 2012, we really made an assessment and said, 'Hey, we can do better here.' So we set a four-year goal and have really been able to meet it in two years," Taylor said. "The emphasis we placed on recruiting minority students is something all districts should be doing. The push for this really came from the fact that we knew we weren't providing equal access — this is a problem all across the country.

"We owe this access to all of our students. To me, it's a moral imperative."

The number of black students taking AP exams since 2012 in Unit 4 has doubled; the number of low-income students has risen by approximately 30 percent, Taylor said. Overall, 41 students — about 15 percent more than in 2011-12 — took AP exams at Central and Centennial last school year.

The result: The district has maintained or increased scores overall. Exams are graded on a 1-to-5 point scale; Unit 4's median test score of 3.13 exceeded state (3.05), national (2.87) and global (2.89) averages.

The number of Unit 4 students scoring a 3 or higher also went up, by 32 — from 160 in 2012 to 192 in 2014.

Financial help available

So why the increase? Taylor said the improvements are mainly a result of a trigger system implemented at Central and Centennial two years ago.

Teachers and counselors were put on the lookout for students who showed potential to do well in AP courses, based on class work, test scores and overall grades. School counselors and principals then personally reached out to students and parents, encouraging them to enroll.

Centennial principal Greg Johnson said the "personal touch" is really what helps students see their potential.

"We want our students to take the classes that will open the most doors for them," Johnson said. "This is incredibly valuable for all of our students and we really wanted to work towards maximizing opportunities for black students."

The two high schools also administer a survey to students each year. It asks what AP classes they're enrolled in; whether they plan to take the exam (the only way to gain college credit from an AP course); and, if not, why.

At the end of the survey, students can also indicate whether they'd like help paying for an AP exam, which cost around $90 each.

"There are generally reductions for low-income students wanting to take AP exams, but even if a student isn't low-income we want to provide help if we can," Taylor said. "If a kid is enrolled in four AP classes, that's a lot of money. The system we have in place is set up to be very discreet. I'm not sure how many kids have actually taken us up on the offer, but we want kids to know there's help if they need it."

'An awesome environment'

To Ana Brown, who has been taking AP courses since she was a freshman, the recent push for enrollment has shifted the Centennial student body's opinion about what it means to take school work seriously.

It "really helps more students want to be in those classes and see the opportunity that is there," Brown said. "It's not as challenging as they might expect because once everyone starts holding themselves to a higher standard, it's not so much ... a nerdy thing to do — it's more so something that everyone wants to do because it helps us out in the end."

Brown, who is currently enrolled in three AP courses, said she's noticed that more students have become educated about the financial benefits of taking AP classes. Not only can Centennial help cover the cost of the test but taking an AP course in high school is both easier and cheaper than waiting to take it in college.

"As a freshman, I never would have known how beneficial these classes are if someone hadn't told me," Brown said. "AP classes are really an awesome environment. You have people who are all on the same level doing the same thing as you, so it's a great opportunity for social and academic growth.

"I've learned a lot about myself and what study habits work for me by interacting with the students in those courses. Like, sometimes you just have to go to Espresso three nights in a row with your classmates to study, and sometimes that doesn't really work."

It's that type of intellectual ownership that Central Principal Joe Williams wants for all of his students.

"We are trying to recognize and eliminate artificial barriers for minorities," he said. "It's important for all students to have the opportunity to be in rigorous courses for true learning to take place."

Taylor said the district will continue to expand AP opportunities. Two new classes will be added in 2015-16 — AP World History and AP Computer Science, bringing the total number of AP courses offered by Unit 4 high schools to 19.

Most of the classes are offered at both schools, but for those that aren't, the district will continue to provide transportation back and forth between the schools.

"We are really reaching out with care here," Taylor said. "We owe this to all of our students."

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GeorgeCR wrote on December 06, 2014 at 8:12 am

A lot of attention and comment has been going to the recent protest by students at Centennial. That's appropriate. The issues rocking our country now are incredibly important. Also, in my opinion, the students who have spoken up in the Comments section have done so respectfully and with candor. 

However, much more attention needs to be paid to THIS article. Not only are more minority students participating in AP classes, but they are doing well in them. Good work Unit 4!

-George Reese