Heights High makes progress on equity
It’s a new semester at Cleveland Heights High School, and enrollment in Advanced Placement (AP) courses is holding strong. In 2015, there were 182 students who took one or more of the school’s 21 AP courses—about 12 percent of all students. This semester, 335 students signed up for at least one of the 23 courses now available. They account for about 24 percent of the 1,400 students who attend high school at the corner of Cedar and Lee roads.
According to Interim Administrative Principal Alisa McKinnie, while the COVID-19 pandemic has been disruptive to much that feels normal at Heights, enrollment in these rigorous courses continues to grow, and students continue to achieve. Numbers are up, and performance levels are impressive.
The College Board designs the courses and trains and certifies the teachers who lead them. It also writes an end-of-course exam that is used nationwide. While taking the exam is optional in some districts, it is required in ours. A grade of three or higher on a five-point scale is evidence of high-level performance. Data was not collected last year because of the pandemic, but, the year before that, Heights students outperformed their peers nationwide with 58 percent earning at least a three, slightly above the national average of 56 percent.
When McKinnie joined the Heights High staff in 2013, she was excited to find that students had a plethora of AP opportunities. Though not surprised, she was disappointed by how few African-American students took advantage of them. Under-representation of African Americans is a nationwide problem.
Access to rigor is a widely accepted measure of equity, and equity is McKinnie’s passion. During the year that she came to Heights, she began work on her dissertation, “Leveling the Playing Field: Ensuring African-American Students Access to Advanced Placement Courses.”
In 2015 the district adopted a new strategic plan. Advancing equity was an over-arching goal. Increasing African-American student enrollment in AP was a priority, and McKinnie volunteered to lead the effort. Thanks to her, and the teamwork of the school’s teachers, guidance staff and parents, subtle barriers to participation are gone, and many more African-American students are living up to their capacity.
Not every family is even aware of Advanced Placement and its benefits, which include earning college credit and developing skills for college success, so the first job was to create awareness. That led to an annual AP Fair to showcase course offerings, and pep rallies, ice cream socials and T-shirts being used to promote AP.
The biggest challenge is helping students know they belong, that they have the ability, that they will benefit from the AP coursework, and that they will be welcomed. Counselors and teachers are critical to helping more students see themselves in these demanding classes. The school no longer requires the prospective student to ask for a teacher recommendation. Rather, teachers make a point of encouraging their students to enroll in higher level courses, and champion their efforts when they do.
The final ingredient for success is support. A summer boot camp helps students with study skills, test-taking strategies, time management and motivation. During the school year there is online help and an after-school check-in time.
Five years of problem-solving and success have changed the school culture. The result is a robust AP program that includes more students, and where racial disparities are shrinking. The story is great news for Heights High students, our community, and equity. It is evidence that we have talented leaders and teachers who are determined to remove barriers, and who want every student to benefit from the education that is available to them.
Equity is neither a vague idea nor something to fear. It makes equal opportunity a reality.
Susie Kaeser has been a proud Cleveland Heights resident siince 1979. She is the former director of Reaching Heights, and is active with the Heights Coalition for Public Education and the League of Women Voters.