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Schools, Race and Disparities in Advanced Placement

In October, reports by ProPublica and the New York Times highlighted racial disparities between whites and non-whites in the nation’s public schools. A companion story in the Times focused on the wide gap between whites and blacks in Charlottesville city schools, and cited the Southern legacy of Jim Crow and segregation. One way of measuring the gap is looking at disparities in who is enrolled in Advanced Placement courses. WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz looks at some of the results in the Shenandoah Valley.

Titled “Miseducation,” the ProPublica report said that nationally, white students are almost twice as likely as black students – and 1.3 times as likely as Hispanic students – to be in Advanced Placement (or AP) courses.

The report lets users look up specific districts and schools; I looked up Harrisonburg High School, and went there to meet a senior who moved here from the Dominican Republic five years ago.

MARY TOLENTINO-BAEZ: My name is Mary Pily Tolentino-Baez.

At Harrisonburg High School, 12 percent of students are black, 39 percent are white, and 43 percent are Hispanic. According to the ProPublica report, white students are about three times as likely to be enrolled in an AP course as are black and Hispanic students. Even though Mary Tolentino-Baez and other Hispanics are two-fifths of the population, they make up only one-fifth of AP course enrollments.

TOLENTINO-BAEZ: It’s really accurate with what the reality is.

Tolentino-Baez is enrolled in a college prep program for first-generation college students, and the Shenandoah Valley Scholars’ Latino Initiative, a mentoring program. She recently attended a Minority Student Achievement Network conference in Boston, and she’s taking two dual enrollment courses through Blue Ridge Community College – and two AP courses.

TOLENTINO-BAEZ: It doesn't have to be just AP and dual enrollment. Even in some honors classes you can kind of step in those classes and you can see that there’s a higher percentage of students who are not of color.

More from Tolentino-Baez in a moment. First, though:

PATRICK LINTNER: This is an ongoing, challenging discussion we have.

Patrick Lintner is the interim superintendent in Harrisonburg City Public Schools.

LINTNER: What do you do to ensure equity for students? What strategies do you employ to encourage participation? And then how do you bend your curriculum and pedagogy? How do you arc that so that it’s maybe more available and relevant to students?

White students at Harrisonburg High comprise 39 percent of the student body – but they are 60 percent of AP enrollments, and receive only 28 percent of out of school suspensions.

LINTNER: Students can be privileged. They don’t necessarily have to be white to be privileged. But when a student has advantages that other students don’t have, good for them, and good for the potential outcomes they have, but what are the ways that you can compensate for students who don’t have privilege?

In Rockingham County, surrounding Harrisonburg, Oskar Scheikl is the public schools superintendent.

OSKAR SCHEIKL: As educators we have to be very, very careful that we don’t create an education system that just mirrors our own experience.

Scheikl oversees a student population that is 80 percent white; only 2 percent of students are black, and 13 percent are Hispanic. That 80 percent of students who are white makes up 85 percent of AP course enrollments.

SCHEIKL: We casually, you know, use phrases like “Every Child, Every Day.” But is the system really designed to work for all children?

ED BRANTMEIER: Where is the burden of change? It’s on all of us.

I reached out to Ed Brantmeier for some perspective. He teaches educational leadership and cross-cultural education courses and more at James Madison University.

BRANTMEIER: What I think it’s really important for us to think about is that racism is not necessarily individual acts of meanness, that racism can be structural.

For example:

BRANTMEIER: Schools may value one way of performing knowledge. So an oral presentation with an introduction, a middle and a conclusion … and these performative styles are valued as a quote-unquote legitimate way of displaying official school knowledge.

Statistics are the complex product of individual students’ unique stories and local situations, but they also reflect matters rooted in history. 

BRANTMEIER: If you look at that legacy of privilege throughout time, no doubt there are going to be disparities in these numbers because accumulated privilege over decades, wealth accumulation, social capital, cultural capital that’s accumulated and then reproduced within a wider social structure, like schools ... as a prime site of cultural and social reproduction. This is the story, this is the narrative, this is how certain groups maintain dominance over others.

Educational systems can change to address these disparities, in part by fostering faculties that reflect student backgrounds and valuing different ways of knowing and diverse strengths. There are no simple solutions, Brantmeier said – just complex questions.

Back at Harrisonburg High School, student Tolentino-Baez said the disparities in education make sense.

TOLENTINO-BAEZ: It’s kind of hard to integrate the people who were not [at] the table when the system was  being made.

They also have real impact.

TOLENTINO-BAEZ: Even for myself walking into a class where I don’t see anybody else that looks like me, I feel like maybe this is not where I belong, maybe I’m not in the place for me.

Tolentino-Baez doesn’t know yet what she wants to study in college, but the support she has received has contributed to her successes so far – against the statistical odds of disparity.

Christopher Clymer Kurtz was a freelance journalist for WMRA from 2015 - 2019.