A Colorado grant aimed to increase access to advanced coursework. It is unclear how much it helped.


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Something changed when Sierra High School started automatically enrolling more students in Advanced Placement courses. 

The diverse high school in the Harrison district in Colorado Springs saw the demographics of advanced courses shift to better match the school. The students who were enrolled based on their past grades actually had higher average test scores on the AP exam than their classmates who had self-enrolled in the more rigorous courses. 

And it changed how students saw themselves.

Principal Connor Beudoin said he’s heard students and parents say things like, “I didn’t know I was supposed to be in that class,” or “I didn’t think my kid would ever be in this class and here they are thriving.”

“It’s really shifting that mindset for students as far as capabilities,” Beudoin said. 

Sierra in Colorado Springs is one of the recipients of a Colorado grant that started in 2019 and was designed to encourage more schools and districts to automatically enroll students in advanced coursework such as Advanced Placement courses, as a way to increase diversity and improve access.  The grant also can be used for schools or districts to enroll more students in honors or other advanced-type courses, not just Advanced Placement.

Sierra received the grant in the second round of awards and used the money in the 2022-23 school year. At Sierra, the number of Advanced Placement courses offered increased from 15 to 17 with the grant, and included classes like chemistry, psychology, and computer science.

Beudoin said the work was about laying the foundation so the school could eventually enroll all students in pre-Advanced Placement courses. It involved training staff, identifying students who could automatically enroll in advanced courses, hosting tutoring sessions, and holding quarterly celebration dinners.

The outcomes at the Harrison high school are exactly what proponents of the grant wanted. But it’s unclear if the results were replicated at other participating schools across the state. 

Colorado first handed out the grants in the 2019-20 school year just before the COVID pandemic started disrupting education. The next school year, the grant was paused, and though it resumed in the 2021-22 school year, the Colorado Department of Education didn’t require districts to report back on how they used the money or what changed for students. In some districts, staff turnover means no one is left who worked on the program, and at least one school that received money later closed.

Four schools and a school district received $187,659 total in the first year, two schools and two districts received $161,703.89 in the second round, and one school and four districts received funding in May to spend in the 2023-24 school year. To receive the grant, schools or districts just had to apply for the money. Only one applicant in the three rounds was turned down because of an incomplete application.

Whether the grant continues depends on legislators continuing to set aside the money for it.

Three schools in the Denver school district, George Washington, Kennedy, and Northfield,  received the grant in the first year, and Kennedy received funding a second time, but district officials said the people who were involved in the original grant are “no longer with the district.” They said no one in the district could speak to that work. 

Other districts that received funding did not respond to requests for comment. 

This summer, schools that received funding in the second round were supposed to submit a report on how they used the money and its impact, but only one recipient has done so. 

The Northeast Board of Cooperative Educational Services is a regional group consisting of 12 school districts. The group aimed to get all districts to adopt policies and guidelines for how to accelerate students who might be ready to move into advanced courses. Six of the 12 did. In the report, the Northeast BOCES identified some challenges for its rural schools, but said the grant enabled them to start planning for an expansion of advanced classes and to continue to build on that over the next few years.

One of the main challenges was being able to consistently offer advanced courses. Another challenge was teacher attitudes.

Teachers “believed students were not ready for accelerated instruction at the next grade level in spite of strong data because of their maturity, SEL [social emotional learning] needs, or having achievement at ’only’ the 88th percentile instead of 95th percentile,” their report states. “This truly highlights the need we have within our BOCES to do BOCES-wide professional development around advanced education and student needs. Again, this is a start of a conversation — but time will be needed to reiterate research-based information and offer that type of training.”

Alena​ Barczak, the state’s program and high school equivalency support administrator, said the participating BOCES schools increased the number of students in advanced courses and the percentage of students of color who participated. 

She said Hispanic student representation in advanced classes at the BOCES schools went from 7% to 10% after receiving the grant. Students who were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch increased from 8% of the students in the courses to 20%. The Hispanic student population in the BOCES districts ranges from 6% to 53%.

“This is really the only grant program that we have that really focuses on access for students to advanced courses,” Barczak said. “It’s really key. I’ve been really happy to see the legislature keeps funding it. It’s the only program like it.”

Colorado Sen. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat and a sponsor of the law to create the grants, said she’s heard that the program is working. “I have spoken to many students over the last couple of years who benefitted from this important program,” she said in an emailed statement.

Statewide, Colorado does not track the demographics of students enrolled in Advanced Placement courses. It used to track some data — but only for districts that volunteered the information. The state is preparing to include some advanced coursework data in school performance ratings, but it’s not ready yet. 

The data they’re preparing to include in information-only reports in January won’t be broken out by student groups.

The College Board, the organization that runs the courses, does track enrollment demographics at the district level but refused to share the data publicly. They did share some statewide data.

Based on the demographics of students who took an Advanced Placement test in 2022, Black students in Colorado had higher participation compared to Black students nationally, but Hispanic students in Colorado had lower participation than their national counterparts. Colorado’s gap between the participation rate for white students and Hispanic students is larger than the national average. 

The number of Latino students participating in AP nationally increased 83% from 2012 to 2022, according to the College Board reports. As a result, 16% of Latino students in grades 10, 11, and 12 participated in the advanced classes in 2022. In Colorado, just 13% of Latino students participated in AP in 2022. 

According to data provided by Denver Public Schools, the three schools that received funding from the grant, had both Hispanic and Black students largely underrepresented in Advanced Placement courses at the time they received the grant in 2019-20. Black students represented 10% of students in AP classes in the three schools while Black students made up 15.8% of the population. Hispanic students made up 35.8% of their Advanced Placement students at the three Denver schools, while they made up more than 46% of all students in the schools. 

Even at Sierra High School, after the grant money helped improve the representation of students taking Advanced Placement courses, Hispanic students remained slightly underrepresented. 

In 2022-23, about 52.9% of students in the courses were Hispanic, up from 49.6% the year before. More than 54% of the school’s students identified as Hispanic. In the same year, Black student representation improved to 22.9%, compared to the 19.7% of students schoolwide who identify as Black. 

Sierra principal Beudoin said the work will take time, but he said he hopes to eventually see that all students take rigorous coursework, and that it translates into higher academic achievement on state tests and other outcomes.

He said, “it was not just placing students in these classes and saying good luck.” 

Yesenia Robles is a reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado covering K-12 school districts and multilingual education. Contact Yesenia at [email protected].



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