Voices of Youth: How can Ann Arbor schools foster more diverse AP classes?

This article is part of Concentrate's Voices of Youth series, which features content created by Washtenaw County youth in partnership with Concentrate staff mentors, as well as feature stories by adult writers that examine issues of importance to local youth. In this installment, student journalist Isaac Mack examines the lack of diversity in Ann Arbor AP classes.

During the first weeks of last school year, Michael Jones looked out across his classroom with a bothersome feeling he couldn’t quite put his finger on. As he watched students eagerly coming back to school after a pandemic, the realization dawned upon Jones, the only African-American male teacher at Ann Arbor's Skyline High School: “Why aren’t there more faces like mine in this classroom?” 

“There aren't enough African-American students in hard science courses and they are falling behind," Jones says. "We need to take a deeper look into why more kids aren’t enrolling in courses like mine.”

Addressing the lack of diversity in his classroom has long been very important to Jones. He previously taught at Detroit Michigan’s Cass Tech High School, has worked at the University of Michigan's Minority Engineering Program, and helped establish an academy for African-American students in Ann Arbor. His experience has shown him the importance of African-American children being active participants in high-level high school classrooms to meet the ever-evolving competitiveness of college. 

"I believe some youth feel they lack the ability to succeed in classrooms like mine for a variety of reasons ranging from their previous schooling to lack of encouragement by peers," he says.

Challenges in classroom composition 

While Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) are renowned for their diverse group of advanced placement (AP) courses, the blend of students in these classrooms actually isn’t very blended at all. An overwhelming majority of the students identify as white. This leads to a homogeneous classroom setting that may cause people of color to feel isolated. It directly conflicts with the growing trend of African-American students who are willing to pass up attending highly sought-after Ivy League schools like Harvard University for historically Black colleges and universities, like Howard University, in order to belong to the ethnic majority on campus. Such trends have been supported by the New York Times and other mainstream media outlets. 

“I never really noticed it at first glance, but when we got into certain subjects in class I suddenly realized I was the only Black male in the classroom. It was uncomfortable," says Skyline AP language student Chris Wallace.

Chris Wallace.
The “certain subjects” Wallace refers to includes the array of racial topics that AP language or history classes may include in their curriculum. While students have their personal stances on the teachings of these subjects, ranging from “insightful” to “whitewashed," African-American students must sit through these lessons while rarely being able to comfortably discuss the subject matter with other students in the classroom due to the aforementioned lack of diversity. 

In Wallace’s case, the popular memoir “Just Mercy” by author Bryan Stevenson was a cause for concern. The book details African-Americans' complicated history with the criminal justice system and dives into serious stories that could easily discomfort an African-American person in a predominately white setting. 

So while many African-American adolescents in AAPS are accustomed to being a minority at their respective schools, enrollment in these courses subjects them to material that may intensify that feeling to intolerable levels. These youth must ask themselves "How far am I willing to step out of my comfort zone?” when it comes to elevating their academic careers. 

“I don’t want to be singled out by non-Black and brown people, when in these classrooms I just want to be looked at as a student like everyone else," Wallace says.

Of course, teachers play an integral role in managing all of their students' stress and feelings towards the overall class. And they can make or break whether students take their class. 

While school districts cannot control which students take which courses, they do determine who they hire to instruct these classes. Many, like Skyline’s newly appointed equity teacher Lakesha Barton, believe there aren’t enough African-American instructors. From Barton's point of view, a potential solution to increasing African-Americans enrolled in AP courses is balancing the many predominately white voices in the classroom with an African-American teacher.

"This allows for the classroom to potentially be more familiar to the minority student and negate the isolation students like Chris experience in their AP classrooms," she says.

Imposter syndrome

When examining why more African-Americans aren’t taking AP courses, another problem arises in the kids themselves. Studies around the country, including those conducted by Waubonsee Community College in Illinois and the University of Texas at Austin, have confirmed higher rates of imposter syndrome in African-American students. Imposter syndrome is an overwhelming feeling of self-doubt and ability despite one's education, experience, and personal accomplishments.

African-American AP history student Shamiso Ruwende can relate to certain thoughts and feelings associated with imposter syndrome. When asked whether there were any doubts or worries prior to taking AP courses at Skyline, she was quite candid.

“I felt like I didn’t have a place and underestimated my ability. I don’t know exactly who told me I couldn’t succeed in that class, but that was my mindset,” she says. 

AP computer science student Amir Abston, who is also African-American, felt similar sentiments as she considered whether AP classes would be suitable for her. She didn't feel the confidence to succeed, and enrolling was not a cut-and-dried decision. 

“I was really worried the class’s difficulty would be too much for me,” she says. 

Amir Abston.
Both Ruwende and Abston succeeded in their AP courses. And now, Abston has some pretty strong advice for African-American students. She says they "should go for it,” and “the classes aren’t as hard as they seem.”

This bit of insight into some students' mindsets suggests that imposter syndrome-related doubts are weighing heavily on Black students once they enroll. Or it's simply keeping them from taking the classes altogether. 

Looking ahead
Skyline counselor Dave Almassy says "the problem lies in youth who have shown great academic promise and have already proven they’re a great candidate, but refuse to enroll for other reasons."

He adds that his job is to "put students in a position to succeed."

"Some of my kids decide to opt out of these advanced courses and the decision matches with where they are at," he says. 

A solution may lie in brave African-American students and their families. Wallace credits his parents as an important influence that encouraged him to enroll. Also, a social domino effect can be spurred by siblings and friends when they take these classes and do well in them.

Peers' demonstrations of capability may embolden students around them to take on the endeavor, while also simultaneously addressing the issue of isolation by increasing the amount of Black students in the classroom.

“My parents, and the fact I had siblings who already completed these kinds of courses, helped give me the confidence to take my AP history class,” Ruwende says.

As Jones stresses, the lack of African-American youth in AP courses is preventing a large portion of the African-American population from getting a head start on post-secondary education.

"In a country becoming increasingly challenging in its school curriculum, this trend has had, and will continue to have, a negative effect not only on African-American teens in Ann Arbor, but Black teens around the nation," he says. "It is a multi-angled problem with many obstacles, but we can change it.”

Isaac Mack is a student at Skyline High School. He lives in Ann Arbor.

Amir Abston photos by Doug Coombe. Chris Wallace photo courtesy of Chris Wallace.

Concentrate staffer Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder served as Isaac's mentor on this project.

To learn more about Concentrate's Voices of Youth project and read other installments in the series, click here.
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