Belleville’s two public high schools have doubled the number of low-income students and students of color in advanced placement courses in the coming school year — part of a statewide goal to enroll 100,000 underrepresented students in such classes by 2019.
And East St. Louis Senior High is encouraging students to try more rigorous coursework even if they aren’t the top students.
Experts say high schoolers who take challenging classes have a leg up in college. But studies show black students, Latino students and low-income students are less likely to take them.
According to the nonpartisan think tank Education Trust, 600,000 more kids would take AP classes if low-income, black and Latino students were enrolled at the same rate as middle- and upper-income students and Asian and white students.
About half of the more than 4,800 high school students at Belleville East and Belleville West are low-income. Around 40 percent of its students are black.
Belleville East principal Jason Karstens said his district increased AP enrollment of low-income and black students to 38 percent by assigning teachers students to recruit.
“We’re not anywhere near where we want to be, but we’re very pleased of the effort that we’ve made,” Karstens said. “This is really one year of many years to get to that, where we — we want to have equal representation in our AP courses.”
The Belleville schools are part of 48 Illinois high schools and 10 Missouri high schools working towards equal representation with help from an organization called Equal Opportunity Schools. That’s led in the St. Louis area by Chris Belcher, a retired superintendent from Columbia, Missouri.
“We have to change this belief that just because you’re poor or just because you’re in an environment that isn’t more traditionally college prep or college ready that you’re not capable,” Belcher said. “There may be some supports they need in order to be successful. Maybe they have to have some better reading strategies. Maybe there has to be some organizational skills taught. But these kids are all equally smart and talented.”
Missouri’s schools include all of the high schools in the Parkway and Ferguson-Florissant districts. Belcher said those ten schools have enrolled about a thousand additional low-income students or students of color in AP courses this school year.
A second method
Belleville’s high schools are also starting a program called Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, this year to help prepare more low-income students and minority students for advanced coursework.
“The goal of that is to give kids that haven’t been exposed maybe to these rigorous courses some tools to help them be successful,” and then ramp up to honors classes, Belleville West principal Rich Mertens said.
It’s the third school year that East St. Louis Senior High — where almost all of the school’s students are low-income and black — is using AVID. Based on ACT scores, the school has only prepared about five percent of its students for college.
B and C students who are interested in college go through the AVID program, where they learn organizational and note-taking skills and are pushed to try at least one advanced placement or honors class.
Chaya Cary, 16, is going a step further. The rising junior will be taking classes at Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville this school year. The district pays for tuition, meal plans and books. Chaya is one of 21 students in the East St. Louis district who are on track to get an associate’s degree by the time they graduate high school.
“I’m going to get my degree in science, advanced science. I want to become a registered nurse. A traveling RN,” she said. “I felt like if I have the opportunity to take advantage of this I could save my mama money, keep money in her pocket and have her not stress about me starting off in college.”
East St. Louis Senior High has also increased the number of AP subjects they offer over the past six years to 11, and enrollment in them has followed. School officials said 26 students were enrolled in the 2011-2012 school year; it’s 444 now.
Follow Camille on Twitter: @cmpcamille