McKeesport high school grant encourages black students to enroll in AP classes

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Nayelle Williams has been taking advanced courses since fourth grade. The sophomore at McKeesport Area Senior High School is enrolled in all honors courses and is already mapping out which Advanced Placement classes she wants to take next year.

School administrators are hoping she’ll soon be joined by some of her peers.

At the high school, 43 percent of the students are black, but blacks make up a much lower percentage — 3 percent — of students enrolled in honors or AP classes. It’s this disparity that prompted school administrators to apply for one of several teacher empowerment grants funded by Heinz Endowments and managed by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit. The grant is primarily designed to support teacher-led projects in secondary schools to improve educational outcomes for minority and low-income students.

Grants were also awarded to Sto-Rox Middle School to improve parent and community engagement within the school, and Woodland Hills Academy for an after-school program to encourage minority female student interest in STEM subjects, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“We’re trying to address some of these inequities in achievement gaps across our region,” said Rosanne Javorsky, assistant executive director for teaching and learning at AIU. “All three of these projects have taken a more innovative approach than most. My hope is that they’ll do exactly what it is they’re setting out to do, and we want to help them get there.”

The program wants to support the schools for an additional school year and have already applied for additional funds through Heinz Endowments, she said.

McKeesport Area’s $35,000 grant provides funds for teachers to identify potentially successful students who aren’t enrolled in AP and honors courses and investigate reasons they aren’t enrolling.

McKeesport Area falls into a trend seen nationwide. According to data released in the College Board’s 10th annual Report to the Nation, almost 300,000 academically capable students nationally in 2013 either didn’t take an available AP course or attended a school that didn’t offer one. In Three percent of the state's 2013  black high school graduates who took AP exams passed one. However, of the white graduates who took AP exams, 82 percent passed at least one exam, the report showed.

AP government teacher Shari Halfhill is one of the teachers coordinating the initiative, along with Honors English teacher Bonnie Butler and Alice Saxon, the school’s college and career counselor.

They have identified about 200 potentially successful eighth-, ninth- and 10th-grade black students based on their PSAT scores, class grades, teacher recommendations and attendance. All year, the teachers have hosted town hall and informational meetings, sent out reminder postcards of AP enrollment deadlines, and attended middle school recruitment fairs looking for incoming freshmen.

“Students have come to us and said, 'Wow, I didn’t know I could be in AP classes. Can you help me apply?' Some of them are even taking the initiative to find us,” Ms. Butler said.

She said many of the students and parents didn't know they had the option to apply for the classes and were unaware of the benefits of taking more challenging courses early in their academic careers.

“They’re getting ready to step into the adult world, so students need all the help and preparation they can get, starting now,” she said.

Since conducting their research at the beginning of the school year, Ms. Halfhill said she thinks students’ confidence in their academic skills is a key factor in whether they enroll in advanced courses.

The school has implemented several changes that she said educators hope will increase enrollment, including requiring parental permission for students to enroll in any class. Students also must now have a parent signature to drop a class within the first 10 days of the school year to discourage students from dropping a class once they see the workload.

Ms. Butler said next school year students also will have free tutors from Penn State University Greater Allegheny to help ease the transition into a heavier, more rigorous course load.

They have specifically targeted parents and families of potential students because they play a huge role in the success, or failure, of a student enrolled in the more difficult AP and honors courses, Ms. Halfhill said.

“The more parents are involved, the better the student will do in any class,” she said. “Parents need to help keep their student progressing.”

Nayelle agreed and said at first it was her parents and teachers who encouraged her to take more challenging classes. Eventually, her motives shifted. She said taking advanced courses will help her achieve her goal of studying law at Duquesne University and better prepare her for what’s next.

“I do it for myself because I like to challenge myself,” she said. 

Clarece Polke: or 412-263-1889.

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