A week before Julie Wurth’s article on achievement gaps in Unit 4, I presented research at the University of Illinois as part of an ethnography conference titled, “Addressing Racial Disparities in AP Classes.” The article shone a light on what students and teachers have known for years: Unit 4 has an opportunity gap, and it is something that frustrates everyone.
As an Asian American student in Unit 4, I’ve been predestined for high academic achievement: first, in a gifted and talented program at Garden Hills, then on the honors track at Franklin. At Centennial, I take multiple AP classes. However, when I look at the students who surround me, there is a troubling trend: we are all Asian and white, with a dire underrepresentation of black students.
Centennial is 37 percent black; the highest percentage by race. It should be alarming enough to know that when I look around my AP classes, there are at most three black students, and at least 10 empty seats. These are generous numbers.
My classes tend to be quiet. Not the kind of quiet that accompanies focused studying and vigorous thinking, but the kind that accompanies spaces that are so homogenous, they have exhausted all discussions.
Champaign-Urbana’s greatest pride should be its diverse community, and this should be represented in the spaces in which youth interact. When these spaces lack diversity, the students are deprived of the most comprehensive education this town can offer.
Centennial administrators work tirelessly to increase enrollment of underrepresented groups in AP classes. They administer surveys, send letters home and organize informational meetings. Although there is more work to be done to increase enrollment, this is not where the problem lies. The gap is established much earlier, when elementary school students are divided into enrichment and gifted programs.
Once a student is in the gifted program, they are more likely to enter the honors track in middle school, which then makes them feel better equipped to enter AP classes in high school.
This year, I reconnected with a friend with whom I had attended both elementary and middle school. She was not in the gifted program, so our elementary school interactions were limited to PE class. We never crossed paths in Franklin. It was not until this year, my senior year, when we had our first academic class together — an elective, non-honors course. My friend is passionate, galvanizing and fully capable of holding her own in an AP class. However, she says she would not feel comfortable entering a room where her face would be the only one with melanin.
I love my school district, and I truly believe that my administrators want to build an equitable and unified community. Every student in Unit 4 deserves an equal chance at academic success, and if students, teachers, and administrators fight the opportunity gap, it can be closed.
I believe that the most powerful solutions to this issue will come from us, the students. This is our reality, and we are the lives behind the statistics.