District 211 and Lead Higher Initiative To Help Close Gap
Throughout the past several years, High School District 211 has focused efforts on bridging the gaps in Advanced Placement (AP) and accelerated courses among students from all race and income backgrounds. District 211 is one of a handful of school districts across the state selected to participate in the Lead Higher Initiative, a partnership between the State and Equal Opportunity Schools (EOS), to expand enrollment to students. In a joint initiative from Governor Bruce Rauner, Secretary of Education Dr. Beth Purvis, and State Superintendent of Education Dr. Tony Smith, Illinois became the first state in the U.S. to partner with the Lead Higher Initiative in a statewide challenge to close equity gaps for lower-income students and students of color in its high schools’ most rigorous courses.
Students’ participation in AP courses can significantly impact a student’s future by challenging students with more rigor, offering an opportunity to earn guaranteed college credit in Illinois, and enhancing application to competitive colleges. For the class of 2012, 48 percent of all District 211 students were enrolled in at least one AP class by the time they graduated. In the District’s class of 2017, 60 percent have enrolled in at least one AP course. Though the number of District 211 students enrolled in AP courses has increased, the percentage of students to earn a score of 3 or higher on the course AP examination has remained around 80 percent. Additionally, public institutions in Illinois accept an AP score of 3 and higher for college credit, which helps many students with the financial burden of college tuition.
“Persistence in freshman to sophomore year of college is a key indicator of student readiness,” said Mark Kovack, associate superintendent for student services in District 211. “Over each of the past eight years, more than 90 percent of District 211 graduates who enrolled in college following high school graduation remained enrolled as college sophomores. This compares to a national average of 69 percent and clearly illustrates the District’s efforts to help students plan and prepare for college.”
In addition to AP courses, various programs and events also have encouraged students to get involved in AP courses. District 211 partners with EOS, which is a proven organization of assisting school districts to identify, enroll and support more students in challenging college-preparatory courses. Successful completion in AP coursework boosts students’ academic motivation, achievement, and likelihood of graduating from college.
For several years, District 211 has provided supports to students through its own Project Excel program. Project Excel identifies incoming freshman and minority students and aims to support and teach them to become resilient, hard-working, engaged learners in accelerated AP courses. Students participate in learning cohorts throughout all four years of high school, which provides an opportunity for students to learn and grow with the same group of students during some of their classes as a support system.
Hoffman Estates High School senior Cindy Aguilera-Navarro said Project Excel is a reason she is now participating in AP-level courses. She never thought it was possible for her to go to college. Cindy, who is an immigrant and the first student in her family applying to a four-year university, faced many obstacles in her personal life that impacted her priorities in school. With the immense amount of support from her teachers, she was encouraged to take honors courses her freshman year and then was encouraged to take AP courses moving forward.
“My teachers, and mostly Project Excel, has influenced me and taught me that nothing is impossible and that I can exceed my expectations,” she said. “Freshman year, I didn’t take AP classes and I was in honors. That is when my teachers pushed me even more because they knew I could handle it. If I didn’t have that support, I don’t think I would have had the courage to take those classes.”
Cindy is now in the process of applying for colleges with interests in studying law, writing, or pre-medicine.
Palatine High School senior Karen Contreras also is a participant in the Project Excel program and said it helped push her to take AP classes when she was unsure of her capabilities. Starting in honors classes, Karen said her teachers encouraged her to take AP classes. She said she was surprised to find the classes were manageable with hard work and effort, and also said it helps to have people around you who show their support.
“I always felt I was not the smartest student, but throughout all my years in high school I have always battled that and challenged myself,” Karen said. “I would tell students coming into high school that they might have preconceived ideas about how they might not be able to do something, but it is always worth it to try.”
Karen is currently applying to attend college, including Swarthmore College and Northwestern University.
To help students with the college application process, District 211 hosts a First-Generation College Symposium in both English and Spanish. The event explains important information for first-generation college students and their families, such as financial aid, differences in collegiate institutions, and what to expect. Incoming freshmen also have the opportunity to enroll in a summer school social studies AP preparation course that specifically focuses on reading and writing in the subject.
Students who have graduated from District 211 and are college-bound have reached out to teachers letting them know how the supports and encouragement to enroll in AP courses changed their lives. In a letter to Conant High School Counselor Adam Leibman, recent class of 2016 graduate Ronak Mehta describes how without Leibman’s help, he would not be where he is today – enrolled in classes at the University of Illinois.
“Due to the time and effort you put in, you managed to change the rest of my high school career,” writes Ronak. “Because of the opportunity that you gave me, I was able to challenge myself on a daily basis, meet new people, and aspire to get into a prestigious college. The most inspiring thing about what you did is not how you just helped me, but how you continue to help hundreds of people like me who want something more with their high school experience.”
Superintendent Dan Cates commented that District 211 officials are “pleased with the positive results of our existing programs, and our partnership in the Lead Higher initiative is the next step to help us reach more students and further narrow existing gaps.”