Voices of Youth: Why still so few minority students in AP classes?

Editor's Note: This story was written by Regina Kibezi, a junior at Loy Norrix High School, as part of the Spring 2023 Kalamazoo Voices of Youth Program. The accompanying t-shirt design is by Haba Kibezi,14, an 8th grader at Milwood Middle School, and the mixed-media collage is by Kierra Walker, 17, a recently-graduated senior at Loy Norrix High School.

The Voices of Youth Kalamazoo program is a collaboration between Southwest Michigan Second Wave and KYD Network, funded by the Stryker Johnston Foundation. 

"No,” is the quick answer Denzell Edmonson gives when asked if he knows much about Advanced Placement classes at his high school.

“They’re hard,” he says.

But beyond that, the Loy Norrix High School senior says he only knows what he has heard about them during his building’s morning announcements.
As a student hoping to attend Michigan State University, had he ever been interested in taking honors or Advanced Placement classes?

“No, and I don’t want to either,” says Edmonson, whose sentiment is shared by another African-American male, his friend, Shauntay Jackson, a Loy Norrix junior. Jackson says he also has no plans to take Advanced Classes but does not have an explanation for why.

A national issue

Nationwide, few African-American and Latino students tend to enroll in Advanced Placement and honors classes in school districts, but the reasons often have little to do with their ability to perform academically in such spaces, according to the Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based organization advocating for equity in the U.S. educational system.

According to the group, students of color and students from low-income backgrounds get shut out early from the pipeline that provides access to more rigorous academic experiences down the line in upper grades. Specifically, they are oftentimes overlooked for gifted and talented programs in elementary schools, which leads to them later not being tapped to enroll in advanced classes and programs in middle and high school.

Here's the rub. Students who aspire to go to college are 11% more likely to take an AP class when they feel like they belong in the class, says The Education Trust's website.

Edmonson says he has a sister who is taking an advanced class. And he says, “I probably am,” when he is asked if he thinks he’s missing out by not taking more challenging, college-level courses. 

The absence of minority students from classes that prepare them for college has some educators concerned.

Loy Norrix Principal Chris Aguinaga says Advanced Placement classes involve the kind of challenging work students can expect to face at the college level. Although he has no statistics for how many African-American or other students of color take honors and advanced classes at his school, he says he knows that there is a disproportionately low number.

“I am sick and tired of walking in AP classes,  and I can tell it’s an AP class without looking at the schedule because of the color of kids' skins,” Aguinaga says.

Getting in the pipeline

Clara Burton, a 14-year-old freshman, and Heaven Cole, a 15-year-old sophomore, both of whom are white, say they have always been in honors and advanced classes. They were placed in challenging classes in their younger years and have been enrolled in them almost automatically ever since.

“I didn’t really get to choose to,” Burton says of taking challenging classes. “It kind of just got on my thing because I’ve been in advanced classes like my whole school career. I didn’t have to sign up. I just got put into the classes. So it just kind of happened.”

Haba Kibezi, an 8th grader at Milwood Middle School, designed this shirt to accompany this article (Front view). Please see Haba's artist statement below.In high school, she has had Honors English for the last two trimesters. She estimates that her most recent class has 27 to 28 people. Of them, eight or nine are students of color. “I would definitely say there are more white people in Honors English,” Burton says. “In my last trimester, there were definitely less. But in this class, there are a few more. There’s a few more than last trimester.”

Asked if she thinks kids miss something by not being in those classes, Burton says: “Not really. We don’t do anything really special. I feel like it’s just different material. We have to write more. Let’s say we’re doing an essay, we have to write a few more sentences or a few more paragraphs or read a few more chapters in the class. It’s just more work in a smaller period of time.”

Cole, who has taken advanced classes in health, estimates that there are about five students of color in her class of 20. Asked if she thinks people are missing out on something by not being in the class, she says: “I feel probably a little bit because I feel like it will look good on college resumes and it also prepares you better for the future, especially if you want to be in a medical field.”

Haba Kibezi, an 8th grader at Milwood Middle School, designed this shirt to accompany this article (back view). Please see Haba's artist statement below.She says the Honors Health class is better than other health classes she has had, adding, “We do a lot more, more advanced stuff.” And although she has not decided what she wants to be in the working world, one thing she is considering is becoming a surgeon.

Savier Battle, an 18-year-old African-American senior who likes to write poetry, says he feels like he missed out on a lot by not taking advanced classes.

He says he wanted to do so, but he failed freshman English and was advised not to try Honors English. He says after he got established in school, he had hoped to take AP English. “But there was a class that I needed to take (first),” says Battle. “It was Honors English.”

A past effort

In Kalamazoo Public Schools, there have been efforts to diversify enrollment in higher-level courses. Longtime teacher Matthew Porco, who taught two AP History classes this past school year at Loy Norrix High School, has been teaching advanced classes since 2005. He recalls that former Schools Superintendent Michael Rice, Ph.D., made a big push to increase overall enrollment and minority enrollment in AP classes.

“So, I think we saw a minimum increase I want to say in 2011-2012,” Porco says. 
Porco estimates about 70 kids took AP U.S. History this past year at Loy Norrix, and the prior year about 140 students took Honors English. He’s not sure how many of them were minority students. But, if enrollment is similar to what plays out in his own classroom, he suspects the figures have been “pretty consistently low” over the years.
In Porco’s AP History class during the 2022-2023 year, he had 34 students, and, of those, five to six, were students of color. “As sad as that is, that is a higher number,” he says.

He remembers that in his first year teaching AP History, there was only one African-American student in a class of about 27 young people. That student proved that minority students can perform well in advanced classes.

“He was one of maybe five or six kids in the whole state who were African-American that got a five on that test,” Porco says. Five is the high score on an end-of-year AP test that ranges from one to five. The tests measure students’ ability to write the required essays and master the subject involved.

A sense of belonging

Envisioning oneself in advanced classes also plays a part in why some students of color don’t pursue them. “I feel like it’s more for the smart kids,” says Genesis Smith, an African-American sophomore in Kalamazoo.
Porco has a theory. 

“I think with AP there’s a fear factor. I think the letters ‘AP’ at the top scares people off,”  the AP History teacher says. He says students of color have also told him that “when you feel you’re going to be one of a very few, and you’re going to go into a mostly white space, that can be a deterrent. And so, I think it’s (fewer minority students is ) a self-fulfilling thing sometimes, too.”

Liliana Leighton, who was one of five students of color out of a class of 30 students this past school year, says participating in advanced classes can be lonely.
“It's more of like being an outcast – just feeling alone,” says Leighton, a 16-year-old sophomore who is African-American and Hispanic. 

When she doesn’t see people who look like her in her Honors English class, she says, “It makes me feel out of place and kind of uncomfortable.” Still, she says she took it for academic rigor. She wants to be an ultrasound technician. 

Kierra Walker, recently graduated senior at Loy Norrix High School, created this mixed-media collage to accompany the article. Please see Kierra's artist statement below.She has strong thoughts about why so few students of color are in AP classes. 
“Just because we're not seen as much,” Leighton says. “We are thought to be stupid and not really pushed to be in honors and AP.”

Leighton says she thinks she would have felt she was missing something had she not enrolled in advanced classes. She found out about Honors English from her guidance counselor, who had noticed her test scores. She wants to be an ultrasound technician.

How to boost minority enrollment in advanced classes?

“Counselors meeting with each student and going over their test scores more thoroughly and asking them if they would like to be in higher classes,”  would help increase minority enrollment, Leighton says.

Loy Norrix Principal Chris Aguinaga says he is working to encourage kids to enroll in more challenging classes. 

Teacher Matthew Porco agrees. “Encourage kids that you know can handle it.”

Regina Kibezi is a Junior at Loy Norrix High School. She has participated in three Voices of Youth Kalamazoo programs, most recently in the Spring 2023 session.

Artist Statement: Kierra Walker, mixed-media collage

Artwork is important to me because it makes me proud to create something of my own. my focus area is how come “How come there are not as many BIPOC folks in AP classes?” I used mixed media and collage to illustrate a lack of diversity in AP classes, and colors and flowers to show emotion. The colors set the tone I am trying to evoke in this piece. I took AP classes during the last 3 years of high school, and it was uncomfortable to be one of the very few Black students in the class, especially during discussions surrounding race and inequity. 

Kierra Walker is a 17-year-old senior at Loy Norrix High School. Kierra enjoys creating artwork.

Artist Statement: Haba Kibezi, t-shirt design

Artwork is really important to me because it allows me to express how I feel about certain topics in a nontraditional way. My focus area in this session is “How come there are not as many BIPOC folks in AP classes?”. On the T-shirt, I signified how for white folks, there are not as many obstacles to getting into AP classes by showing a ladder leading to a key with no missing rungs. To show how it can be more difficult for BIPOC folks, I did the same design on the black portion of the shirt, but this time the ladder is not climbable. Although the solution to these inequities is complicated, I believe that it starts with listening to BIPOC students and their guardians on how to make AP classes more accessible. I used a white t-shirt painted with dye, and a black t-shirt painted with bleach. My art mentor helped me sew the t-shirt pieces together.

Habakuki Kibezi
joined art this year because he thought it would be a fun way to spend some time on the weekends. Haba goes to Millwood Middle School and likes to play video games. Haba is 14 years old and is in 8th grade.

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