by Sarah Swenson, editor-in-chief
Walking through the doors at the Nantucket High School (NHS) is plunging into a sea of diverse chattering students. English, Spanish, Portuguese, Jamaican Patois, Bulgarian, and more, can all be heard bouncing through the hallways between classes, from a student population that represents the future of the island, and indeed, the nation. However, in Advanced Placement (AP) classes, this diversity is underrepresented.
Recently, the Nantucket Public School System became a majority-minority district, meaning less than 50% of the student population is white. In fact, according to the Department of Education (DOE) website, the high school in the 2021-22 school year was 48.2% white, with the next largest category being Hispanic students, who made up 35.4% of the population (compared to a state average of 54.4% white and 24.2% Hispanic students). Yet in AP classes, 73.83% of students were white, and only 9.35% were Hispanic.
This is an underrepresentation gap of 26.05% for Hispanic students and an overrepresentation gap of 25.56% for white students. African American or Black students were also slightly underrepresented and Asian and mixed-race students were slightly overrepresented.
Students, school administrators, and teachers point to a number of different possible factors for this underrepresentation of people of color in AP classes, but the one thing they can all agree on: this is not caused by one thing.
Members of the administration interviewed for this article explained that there have been ongoing conversations about how to remedy this problem, but it is difficult to solve.
One suggested reason that students of color are less likely to take AP classes is that they may feel like they will not succeed—because they aren’t getting the push from staff or because they are facing dealing with economic stressors, such as the need to get a job in addition to class work. They may be less likely to enroll in classes due to a lack of representation in teachers, and in other students in these types of classes.
Another large factor in the underrepresentation of specifically Hispanic students in AP and higher-level classes is the fact that NHS has a large ELL (English Language Learners) program, much of which is made up of Spanish or Portuguese native speakers who identify as Hispanic, meaning that many students identifying as Hispanic are not fluent in English, and thus not yet equipped to take AP level classes.
There are currently 31 Hispanic students in NHS’s ELL program: 15 “newcomers” (who have no knowledge of English coming into the program), and 16 “emerging” (the next step up). With a Hispanic population of ~200 kids, that means that about 15% of Hispanic students are, language-acquisition-wise, not viable to take AP courses. Disincluding these students, Hispanic students last year were ~22% underrepresented.
Another factor to consider is that every year, the percentage of Hispanic students at the high school grows, meaning there are, percentage-wise, more Hispanic students in the freshman class than in the sophomore, junior, or senior classes. Since AP classes are not offered to freshmen, this is another factor that makes the discrepancy seem higher than it is. Still more students, according to NHS administration, are out of the “newcomers” and “emerging” ELL programs, but are still not fully fluent or academically proficient in English.
“If you’ve only been in a country for a year, and you’re still acquiring the language, is AP a place that you’re choosing?” English teacher Anne Phaneuf asked rhetorically.
Due to NHS’s large Hispanic ELL population, which extends beyond just the students in the newcomers and emerging ELL programs, statistics about the demographics of AP classes may not always say what they appear to at first glance, warned Phaneuf. In some ways, they give a glimpse into the incredibly diverse makeup of the school. Students in these programs are not lacking academic skills, just fluency in English.
“There is not an intellect issue—it’s a question of bridging the language,” commented Kathryn Norton. Norton is a student-centered SEI (Structured English Immersion) instructional coach, and her job at NHS is to help teachers understand how to best help students who are not native English speakers and give them the best scaffolding possible so that they can learn alongside English native speaking peers.
She was firm that the difference between students who are not native English speakers, and those who are, is not a question of intelligence, merely of communicating that knowledge, a sentiment shared by ELL teacher Maryia Rubina, who works in ELL classrooms with students who are not yet fluent in English.
“They are working on two courseloads, trying to pick up English and pass the MCAS and learn everything else, on a deadline,” Rubina explained. “Estimates are that it takes six to seven years to develop academic English… When they start at the elementary level, they are more or less at the same literacy level as their peers.”
Several NHS teachers agreed that the younger a student starts learning the language, the easier it is for them to acquire the English skills necessary to succeed in an AP class.
“It gets harder as they get older,” said Rubina.
Imagine starting high school in a foreign country with little to no understanding of the language and being told you have to pass a series of standardized tests in different subjects administered in that language in order to graduate high school. You have to learn the language while also studying biology, math, and history, and you have to be proficient in two to three years under the estimated time for someone to be able to do so just to get to a passing level by senior year. Rubina and Norton impressed that this is an incredibly difficult task for non-native English speakers.
Students are left asking “how can I demonstrate my understanding of the concept when I don’t understand English?”, said Norton.
“I would feel more comfortable… explaining how I’m learning if I’m in the language I grew up with,” said junior Brayan Dos Santos, whose first language was Portuguese. He, along with junior Janey Ferreria, who grew up speaking Spanish, believe that they would take AP classes if they were offered in their native languages.
Diogo de Lima Dias, who is fluent in English and Portuguese, but grew up in Brazil and was part of the ELL program when he moved to the US in fourth grade, added that often, non-native English speakers are not shown understanding as they try to learn.
“When immigrants first get here, they aren’t given the patience that they should be… teachers aren’t patient with them like teachers should be, especially with the language barrier. Because that’s been going on for so many years, some immigrant students have stopped giving teachers respect because they weren’t receiving it first of all.”
He proposed that this may be part of the reason for the underrepresentation of especially Hispanic students in higher-level classes, particularly AP classes. Dias was backed by other students, including senior Ollie Davis, who is a mixed-race student who has been enrolled in several AP classes throughout her high school career, in saying that the students who are in AP classes now are pretty much the same students who were in middle school.
“It’s been these same groups that have been in the high-level classes for our entire lives,” said Davis, “and it’s been the same demographic of people that have been in those classes our entire lives… you [wonder] why it’s white students who are in those high-level tracks in middle school.”
The phenomenon of students being placed in academic “tracks”—high-achieving, average, and low-achieving being the three general categories—that they will then stay in for the rest of their school careers is known as tracking. The phenomenon is pervasive and recognized as harmful due to its detrimental and compromising effects on particularly low-income students and students of color, according to the NASSP (National Association of Secondary School Principals).
The school has made an attempt to eliminate some of this effect by making the high school open enrollment, an effort brought up by every teacher or administrator talked to for this article. NHS’s open enrollment policy means that any student can take any class they want (given that they meet prerequisites). If a student who took CP English their sophomore year decided to take AP Language and Composition their junior year, they could. Teachers submit recommendations for their students, but they talk with them beforehand and listen to students’ reasons for wanting to take a particular course the following year.
Cyrus Pierce Middle School (CPS) has also eliminated its advanced section of math in eighth grade.
“Instead what we do is we offer points of acceleration in high school to students who decide that they want to accelerate, which is, to me, a much more equitable way of offering opportunities in math than however it was that they decided to sort kids,” explained high school math teacher Dr. Jedediyah Williams, who teaches AP Calculus.
According to students at NHS, while sorting was done based on achievement level in class and interest on the part of the student, these decisions were also largely made based on level of parent advocacy.
Placing the choice back in students’ hands gives them more control over their academic path, according to Dr. Williams. If they want to be accelerated in math, they can choose to double up on math in high school.
However, despite changes such as an open enrollment policy and eliminating eighth-grade math level sorting, the high school’s students of color are still underrepresented in AP classes. Williams suggested that socioeconomic status could play a large role in the underrepresentation as well.
“The thing that SAT scores most directly measure is parents’ income,” he said. “I imagine AP classes are… sort of the same.”
Students from wealthier families, he explained, have more resources and less anxiety than their less wealthy classmates. Less wealthy students may have to work in addition to class, and historically, people of color are less likely to be wealthy, putting another barrier in front of them.
Guidance counselor Courtney Foster said that she has talked to students who would put more time into their classes, but are prevented from doing so by a job: “When I say to someone who is maybe falling behind in a class—‘Have you thought about going for extra help?’… that’s when students will sometimes say I have a job, I have to be there by 2:30 or 2:45, unfortunately, I don’t have time to stay after [school].”
Foster said that she had not heard this more from students of color as a guidance counselor, however, Dias commented that Latino students are, in his experience, more likely to prioritize jobs over school. Seniors Cece Barnett and Kayleigh Flaherty-Washington, who are also students of color, agreed that students of color may be more likely to prioritize working.
Barnett added that students of color “are not receiving the push…that white people are receiving, from counselors and teachers… They might not have the courage to take AP classes or might not think that they’re smart enough.”
High school principal Mandy Vasil attested that when she started at the school “there were comments that students of color were not encouraged to take AP classes,” but that she hasn’t heard anything like that in a while.
“I’m not saying it’s not true, but I hope it’s not… we have many students of color who are more than capable of taking AP classes.
While Barnett and other students of color interviewed for this article said that they had personally felt supported in their class choices, they did say that being the only student of color in a classroom was difficult.
“[Students of color] would definitely feel more comfortable if someone who looked like them was in the class,” commented Flaherty-Washington. She spoke in regards to classroom composition and teacher representation. There are currently no teachers of color teaching AP classes, and only few in the school as a whole.
“We don’t have enough teachers of color,” agreed Vasil. “For the level of diversity in our school, it’s good for students to see teachers who look like themself.” Diversity encourages diversity.
Teachers and administrators all seemed to agree that NHS is, though imperfect, a unique and diverse learning environment.
“We are a fascinating school, in so many ways, because of all the different folks walking the halls,” said Phaneuf. “The classroom is absolutely made better by diversity… of experience, and perspective.”
Dias commented that the diversity at NHS, especially in terms of immigrants, many of whom are first-generation makes it “quite unique”.
He left his interview with an optimistic comment: “As kids in middle and… elementary school grow up, I think you will see more students of color in AP classes… I think the diversity is going to get better.
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