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Minority numbers up in advanced classes

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet staff
Thursday June 07, 2001

Berkeley High is often criticized for lacking diversity in its high level classes, particularly its Advanced Placement classes, but one group has tackled the problem head on. 

In a school that’s 37 percent African American, less than 1 percent of students enrolled in AP classes are African American.  

Students, parents, teachers and administrators have taken turns lambasting the lack of integration in Berkeley High’s AP classes for years, but whenever the discussion got around to how to solve the problem, consensus proved illusive. 

Students can earn college credit after taking AP classes, which are designed to prepare them for advanced studies. 

Lack of diversity in AP classes is a problem throughout the state, said Antwi Acom, a graduate student in sociology at UC Berkeley. In some school districts, Acom said, where the numbers of minority students has increased, AP offerings have declined overall, suggesting an institutional belief that such classes aren’t meant for blacks and Latinos. 

In Berkeley, the lack of diversity in high level classes is often listed as one more symptom of the achievement gap, where whites and Asians tend to outperform blacks and Latinos on standardized tests. Minority students are not prepared for high level classes when they reach Berkeley High, the argument goes. 

But some time last summer, a core group of Berkeley High parents and teachers got tired of the talk. The set out to systemically study the problem and, just as systematically, to solve it. 

The so-called AP Project began with the premise that there has never been a shortage of high-achieving and motivated students of color at Berkeley High to fill up AP classes – should they choose to do so. 

After months of surveying students, the AP Project leaders found that the top reason minority students were not signing up for AP classes was: The fact that minorities were not signing up for AP classes.  

In other words, few minorities wanted to venture into classes where they would very possibly be the only student of color in a class of 24 students. 

The project leaders also discovered a culture of peer pressure at the school, however, where minority students who did take AP classes tended to be disparaged by their minority peers.  

Furthermore, they found concerns among minority students themselves that perhaps they were not prepared for these high level classes, and to sign up for them would mean, among other humiliations, watching their GPAs take a dive. (AP classes are weighted more heavily than regular classes in calculating students’ GPAs). 

Enlisting the help of Berkeley High Principal Frank Lynch, the AP Project set out to woo minority students into AP classes. A select group of high performing minority students were invited to one-on-one meetings with Berkeley High counselors, where they discussed the possibility of signing up for AP classes. After meetings with the first 17 students, 15 agreed to go for it, according to Kristin Shepherd, president of the Berkeley High Parent Teacher Student Association. 

By the end of the year, the AP project had recruited 60 African American and Latino students to take AP economics, government and English next year. The goal, said Shepherd, is to have four AP classes where half the class is made up of minority students. 

On Tuesday night, the teachers who will teach the AP classes next year met with the parents of the African American and Latino students to hear concerns and give assurances. One after another the teachers said they were committed to helping these students succeed, and would find ways to get them any extra help they felt they needed. 

“I’ve been waiting a long time for an opportunity to do something like this,” said Berkeley High government teacher Steve Teel. 

“I think you guys really have an opportunity here to change the culture of the whole school,” said Alison Johnson, chairperson of the Berkeley High English Department. 

After the meeting, Berkeley High junior Regina Alexander, an African American student who plans to take AP English next year, said the prospect of taking an AP class is far less intimidating when she knows there will be many other students of color in the class with her. 

“I think a program like (the AP Project) would be necessary at any school,” said Regina’s father, Reginald Alexander. “It’s a means of getting all cultures involved.”