Mountain View High Narrows Achievement Gap

by Kevin Forestieri / Mountain View Voice

Three years ago, staff at Mountain View High School set out to increase the number of Latino and other underrepresented minority students in Advanced Placement (AP) and honors classes. The idea was that plenty of minority students are capable of taking the rigorous courses that look great on a college application, but they just needed that extra level of encouragement from teachers and counselors.

Three years later, the school is now calling it a success. The Santa Clara County Office of Education recently announced that Mountain View High School now ranks in the top percentile of schools in the nation for fully reflecting the school's student diversity in its AP and honors class enrollment, making it one of only four schools in the county to pull it off.

"It's one of the most incredible accomplishments I've seen in 37 years of my career," said Superintendent Barry Groves, noting that the school has doubled AP enrollment among underrepresented minorities in just one year. Between the last school year and this year, Latino students enrolled in AP courses at the high school grew from 81 students to 132 students. An additional 129 underrepresented students took AP courses for the first time this school year, according to Associate Superintendent Brigitte Sarraf.

Starting in the 2013-14 school year, the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District signed a contract with Equal Opportunity Schools, a Seattle-based nonprofit focused on identifying underrepresented minority students "capable" of doing well in tough classes but who hadn't enrolled in them.

Figuring out which students are able to take difficult classes is a data-heavy endeavor by Equal Opportunity Schools that takes in information on grades, certain test scores and overall demographic data, according to Angelica Ramsey, Santa Clara County's chief academic officer. There are also plenty of non-data factors such as aptitude, willingness to take courses, and cultural influences that are important to take into account as well, Ramsey said.

"The local context is important. Many students might not know what AP even is. Minority parents may not know about these classes," she said. "The school climate may make students feel like those courses aren't for them."

At the April 1 county board of education meeting, Ramsey said Equal Opportunity Schools can't take all the credit -- the high school had been working on greater inclusion of minority groups in high-achieving classes for about 10 years -- but the recent results have been astounding.

The school showed huge gains in the number of low-income Latino students enrolled in at least one AP class. In the 2013-14 school year, only about 20 percent of those students were taking AP classes, according to data from the county. Just one year later, that number jumped to over 70 percent. The district also saw gains across the board for African American students of all socio-economic backgrounds, as well as students of other races.

"They completely bridged the gap in every single area. That's pretty amazing," Ramsey said.

While AP test results are still to come this year, it appears that there is no decrease in the percentage of students taking the test or in class performance since the growth in enrollment, she said.

Equal Opportunity Schools provides data on first-generation students and underrepresented minorities, but it's really up to the schools to encourage and recruit the students to take AP and honors classes, Groves said. The school had counselors, teachers, and a task force working to encourage eligible students and let them know that taking these difficult classes can give them a leg up when it's time to apply for colleges.

"Our job was to reach out to these students and get them to take that 'leap of faith' with us," said Principal Dave Grissom.

Working with Equal Opportunity Schools meant hours of time spent identifying eligible students and the best way to approach them, whether through a counselor or a favorite teacher, Grissom said. The students had filled out a survey as part of the nonprofit's data collection, which asked them to name someone they identified with who works on the campus.

Working off the success of this year, Grissom said, the school will continue to encourage students to take the difficult classes that improve their chances of getting into and finishing college. The school plans to introduce a four-day AP "bridge program" to make that transition a little easier.

"Every year we need to strive to continually support these kids," Grissom said.