Fewer Black, Hispanic students enroll in AP/honors classes. Stamford looks to fix that.

Photo of Ignacio Laguarda
Students enter the Academy of Information Technology & Engineering (AITE) in Stamford, Conn. Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021.

Students enter the Academy of Information Technology & Engineering (AITE) in Stamford, Conn. Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021.

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

STAMFORD — In Stamford schools, Asian and white students are much more likely to take an Advanced Placement or honors course than Black and Hispanic students.

That’s a common story across the country, and Stamford is no exception.

About 55 percent of Asian students and 41 percent of white students in Stamford high schools — Westhill High School, Stamford High School and the Academy of Information Technology and Engineering — are enrolled in at least one AP, Early College Experience or International Baccalaureate course this year.

In comparison, 12 percent of all Black students and 13 percent of all Hispanic students are in at least one of those aforementioned classes.

The percentages were calculated by The Stamford Advocate using recently released figures from Stamford schools showing how many students in AP or honors classes were either white, Black, Hispanic, or Asian and the district’s own enrollment figures from earlier in the year. The results show how many students in each race and ethnicity category has been in an advanced classroom this year.

The picture is similar with honors courses, where about eight in every 10 Asian students is enrolled in at least one, followed by 67 percent of all white students in one or more.

Both Black and Hispanic students are much less likely to be in an honors class, with roughly 35 to 40 percent of each enrolled in at least one class this year.

Rebecca Wilson, coordinator for college and career readiness for Stamford schools, said she wasn’t that surprised by the figures, but was dismayed that the numbers have not improved much in the last decade.

“Our classes do not represent the demographics of our district,” she said. “That is the sad part.”

However, Stamford has made strides in opening up opportunities for minority students to take advanced classes, according to many in the district.

Just over 10 years ago, Westhill took part in a grant known as Project Opening Doors, designed specifically to bring more non-white students into advanced courses. Funding for that program eventually ran out and it is no longer used.

However, it had positive effects, said Christine Wheeler, head of the English department at Westhill.

When she started at the school in 2001, there were only two AP language and two AP literature courses offered. She taught two of those courses, and had only one Black student.

Now, the number of AP courses in those categories is about three times greater, and diversity has improved, she said.

Unlike previous practices, the school does not do any “gate-keeping” when it comes to advanced courses, meaning it does not require students to fill out forms, or require teacher recommendations in order for someone to take more rigorous courses.

“We look to give the kids a chance,” Wheeler said. “We strive to keep them in our classes.”

Jackie Pioli, a member of the Stamford Board of Education, was the person who initially asked for the initial demographic figures of students in advanced courses. But she plans on digging into the numbers even more.

“My next question is going to be: ‘Do they pass the classes?’” she said.

Pioli said many students enter high school unprepared, contributing to less taking challenging classes in high school.

Buses drop off students at Turn of River Middle School in Stamford, Conn. Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021.

Buses drop off students at Turn of River Middle School in Stamford, Conn. Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021.

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

“I wish that as a district we could do better,” she said. “I think that we always try different initiatives. Sometimes we don’t need initiatives, we just need to look at the data we have.”

Ruth-Terry Walden, an English teacher at Westhill High School, teaches one AP English class at the school. She said she has no Black students.

This year has been especially devastating for Black and Hispanic students in advanced courses, she said. In one fell swoop, as Walden put it, a lot of the progress from Project Opening Doors has been wiped out.

During the pandemic, many Black and brown students dropped out of AP courses, some in order to take jobs to help their families, Walden said. Such families, she said, may focus more on the short-term, rather than looking at the long-term benefits of taking advanced courses.

Scoring well on AP exams, for example, can result in class credit at most colleges, saving potentially thousands in tuition. The classes also help students get into colleges and better prepare them for the academic rigor of higher education, as well as allow them to graduate sooner.

“I think the parents and the kids don’t understand the damage they are doing,” she said.

For Walden, having a diverse classroom is beneficial to all.

“When you have a diverse group of children in a classroom, when you have diverse opinions in a classroom, your rigor becomes even more sophisticated,” Walden said. “Because now you have a multicultural group of people sharing their points of view. That’s what the world looks like. That’s what our country looks like, and you want kids exposed to that.”

Wilson said one of the long-standing challenges in getting more minority students in advanced courses is that many don’t view such courses as being available to them.

A big part of that is optics, as many minority students see AP and honors classes filled with mostly white students.

Of all the students in AP, ECE or IB courses in Stamford, 54 percent are white.

“When I was a high school counselor, I had students who wanted to drop out of an AP course because they were the only Black kid in class,” Wilson said.

She said the district needs to “create a dynamic environment to make students thrive and feel like they belong.”

“We have to start having tough conversations and bring about awareness,” she said.

ignacio.laguarda@stamfordadvocate.com