The "Come West 9" program at Westlake High School is part of a broad effort within the Fulton County Schools system, one of six urban school districts recently recognized by a national education group for boosting participation and performance among black students on AP exams, which students can take for college credit while still in high school.
The goal at the metro Atlanta program is to reach not just gifted students but those who think of college as a destination, not a dream.
"I tell my students, 'You are not coming into this program to fail. You are not coming into this program to not go to college,'" said teacher Chantrise Sims-Holliman, who coordinates the program. "We do not want mom and dad to have to pay for college. We want college to pay for you."
On a recent day, one group of students debated an essay on why people lie. Another group analyzed census data on poverty and race. A major emphasis is placed on AP courses, and nearly every student in the program has signed up for AP Human Geography as freshman in the fall.
The Broad Foundation's recent report found that the gap in participation and passing rates on AP exams between white and black students remains significant. Of the 75 urban districts analyzed in the report, only the six recognized were improving AP passing rates for black students quickly enough to narrow the achievement gap with white students while increasing or keeping participating levels steady. The districts in the report represent 32 states and the District of Columbia.
In most districts, the report found, access to and participation in AP exams have gone up, but passing rates have gone down. Cited throughout the report is the benefit of reaching children early. At Westlake High, where 98 percent of the student body is black and 58 percent come from low-income families, that's the driving force behind "Come West 9" and a sister program called "Come West 8," which involves busing in a group of 80 eighth-graders daily during the school year for a half-day of high school-level courses.
"We're reaching all the way down to middle school to identify the kids who are motivated and bring them up," Westlake principal Grant Rivera said. "We can't wait until they are in AP Biology as a junior to prepare them for the rigor of AP. We're prepping them as eighth-graders."
Across the country, remediation in college costs billions of dollars, according to the Broad Foundation report, with students who need remedial courses less likely to end up with degrees.
In recent years, access to AP courses has increased considerably, no longer limited to those with top grades and teacher recommendations. But as participation has expanded, racial and economic disparities have persisted. Nationally, black students accounted for 14.5 percent of high school graduates, but just 9.2 percent of those taking AP exams and 4.4 percent of those scoring three or higher, according to an annual report by The College Board, which administers AP exams in subjects ranging from U.S. history to English language and composition.
Officials with The Broad Foundation said it was important to show improvement was possible. "But progress needs to happen much faster and in all schools before we can truly ensure that all students have access to and the necessary preparation for success in college," Rebecca Wolf DiBiase, the foundation's managing director of programs, said in a statement.
In addition to Fulton County Schools, the other districts cited for gains were the Cobb County School District, also in metro Atlanta; Garland Independent School District in Texas; Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky; Orange County Public Schools in Florida; and San Diego Unified School District in California.
The six districts were recognized for taking actions such as educating parents about the benefits of AP tests and offering a rigorous curriculum beginning in elementary school.
In Cobb County, a gifted education specialist works with kindergartners and first-graders at Clay Elementary to assess academic potential. Within that school district, AP passing rates among black students increased three points between 2008 and 2011 to 39 percent, compared with 72 percent for white students during the same period. That was the highest overall passing rate for black students cited in the report.
For Fulton County, AP passing rates among black students increased one point between 2008 and 2011 to 27 percent, compared with 80 percent for white students during that time.
The report noted that all six districts have high schools offering numerous AP classes and that most use PSAT scores to identify possible candidates for the AP program.
At Westlake High, the number of AP courses has increased in recent years, and freshmen now have access to an AP class. In just a few years, Gramisha Hernandez said she went from teaching one AP English Language and Composition class a day to six.
"It has definitely moved from a very exclusive club to one that is more open and available for every student," Hernandez said. "The non-traditional student who might not have been on an honors track, they can receive the same college-ready class."
In Kentucky, Jefferson County Public Schools has long been paying for every sophomore to take the PSAT and requiring principals to provide AP courses for those who qualify. The district went from offering AP courses in three of its high schools to all 21 and began using a curriculum to advance students through required math courses by the end of their sophomore year to free them up for such classes as AP Calculus and AP Statistics, according to the Broad Foundation report.
A College Board analysis found that only three in 10 black students whose PSAT scores found a high likelihood of success in an AP math class were actually enrolled in one.
Helping to address that is student counseling and parent outreach. The Orange County Public Schools invites families to an annual AP Parent Night to learn about the potential savings associated with using AP exams for college credits, according to the report.
The report also noted that some districts are scaling back AP efforts because of budget cuts. San Diego Unified School District can no longer pay for AP exam fees or its students. Fulton County Schools, however, continues to pay for and require all students in an AP class to take the end-of-course exam.
At Westlake High, students in the "Come West 9" program repeatedly hear about the benefits of participating in AP courses and graduating from college. During one session, students were asked to list the most important reasons for earning a college degree. Some of those discussed: better access to health care, more self-confidence and less dependence on government assistance.
Westlake High counselor Rod Fludd said students cannot underestimate the importance of the college preparations involved with AP courses.
"Not only can you survive in a classroom environment, you can thrive if you've been taking those AP classes," Fludd said.
For Brian Woolfolk, a 13-year-old from Atlanta participating in the "Come West 9" program, the goal is to eventually pass as many AP exams as possible.
"If you have that, it shows colleges that you are taking more advanced classes and are serious about college," Woolfolk said.
Follow Christina Almeida Cassidy on Twitter: http://twitter.com/AP_Christina.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.