EDGEWATER — Students at Jefferson High School want their school board to know they’re just like their peers: They want their advanced U.S. history curriculum left alone.
“We want [the school board] to know every Jeffco student feels this way,” said Angelica Dole, a sophomore and the lead organizer of the Jefferson High’s Monday protest.
But for the upperclassmen at Jefferson High School — who are mostly Latino and poor — the debate over the district’s Advanced Placement U.S. history program may have higher stakes than for their more affluent peers around the county.
Nearly 90 percent of the 552 students at Jefferson High qualify for free- or reduced-lunch prices, a proxy of poverty. In contrast, only about a third of the entire district are low-income. For students all over the district, success in AP classes means a easier path to college. But for the district’s low-income students, that path is often much more challenging and students at Jefferson High School fear that changes to the AP U.S. history curriculum could throw up one more obstacle.
“The school board is not putting themselves in our shoes,” Dole said. “We’re trying to learn and get smarter. We’re trying to get to college.”
Students who successfully pass an Advanced Placement test, like the one offered with U.S. history, may earn college credit, effectively giving students a head start and saving tuition money.
But now, students fear that opportunity might be in jeopardy after school board member Julie Williams proposed a review of the Advanced Placement U.S. history course. William’s proposal ignited a dozen days of acrimony across the county. Jefferson’s own small but rowdy outcry capped a list of 17 neighborhood high schools that rallied in the streets across the county.
The protests were bookended by teachers missing class en masse due to their own criticism of a new compensation plan at four high schools, including Jefferson High.
Students’ fear that their AP credit might be at stake were stoked Friday when the College Board, the company behind the Advanced Placement courses and SAT, said they would forbid Jeffco Public Schools from offering the U.S. history course under their banner if significant changes were made to the curriculum. While the course is one of the most popular advanced electives in the county, for Jefferson High School students, it’s also the rare opportunity to get ahead.
Board chairman Ken Witt told Chalkbeat Colorado last week he is not in favor of scrapping the AP U.S. history course. But, the leader of the conservative board majority doesn’t appear to be backing down from the idea that a panel of community members should be established to review the course’s materials — and other subjects.
“I do want you to understand that I am not advocating to eliminate AP U.S. history,” Witt said in an email. “I do believe that there is enough concern expressed from many sources to warrant careful review, rather than naive assumption.”
Conservatives, like Williams, believe the AP U.S. history course, which was redesigned last year to put more emphasis on historical themes and critical thinking than fact, is revisionist and portrays the nation’s history in a negative light. The architects of the new framework and teachers disagree.
And students said their opportunities should not be limited because of political infighting.
“It’s not their education they’re taking away,” said Elissa Jaramillo, a junior at Edgewater High. “It’s ours.”
Because most of the students at Jefferson High are Latino, they are already less likely to take an Advanced Placement course and test than their peers. According to state data, Jeffco’s Latino students accounted for only 10 percent of the 1,169 student who enrolled in the AP U.S. history course during the 2012-13 school year. By comparison, 25 percent of the district’s entire student population is Latino.
Further, it appears Latino students either have fewer options for AP classes or, at the least, not taking advantage of some course offerings. Only four AP courses during the 2012-13 school year had more than 100 Latino students enrolled: English, literature, U.S. history, and world history. In classes like AP physics, government and politics, and micro-economics, fewer than a dozen Latino students were enrolled.
In total, Latino students enrolled 1,163 times in AP courses across Jefferson County during the 2012-13 school year. (The state’s data does not indicate whether students were enrolled in more than one AP class at a time.) That’s slightly more than the 1,049 white Jeffco students who were enrolled in AP English and Composition alone.
“Studies have shown that students who take AP courses are less likely to need remediation and more likely to graduate from college,” said Lesley Dahlkemper, vice president of communications for the Colorado Education Initiative. “Unfortunately, many students either are not offered this opportunity or do not take advantage of it. If we hope to close the achievement gap, expanding access to and success in AP must be part of the solution.”
Dahlkemper is also a member of the Jeffco school board. She and fellow board member Jill Fellman, who together generally make up a dissenting minority, raised concerns about Williams’ proposal at a Sept. 18 meeting.
There are some signs that more Latino students are participating in Advanced Placement classes. According to Jeffco officials, the number of students at Jefferson High enrolled in AP English language and AP English literature doubled during the last year. The increase is due in part to a $10,000 grant from the Colorado Education Initiative that goes toward fees, classroom equipment and supplies, and study sessions for AP math, science and English courses.
According to the nonprofit, Colorado schools that received similar grants have seen a 106 percent increase in the number of passing scores by African American and Latino students on AP math, science, and English exams.
The out-of-pocket cost for just one AP course can be more than $100, which could be a determinant to some students.
“It’s a paradigm shift for our kids to be more successful because it’s opening doors and removing obstacles that would have stopped them in the past,” said Molly Harrington, a former Jefferson High counselor, after the grant was announced.
Jefferson is also offering more AP courses this year, students said as they marched toward Wadsworth on Friday.
“We have to work harder,” said Hannah Pape, a junior.
The Jefferson County Board of Education is expected to pick up the curriculum review discussion Thursday. And students from Jefferson High have a message they hope the board hears.
“We’re not one of the richer schools,” Jaramillo said. “We get looked down upon. But we want to learn and get out of here. I want to be somebody in life.”