For most Berkeley High School students, taking AP classes is a simple choice they task themselves with when choosing their schedules for the next school year. However, in certain Small Learning Communities (SLC), students are facing difficulties enrolling in these higher-paced and more rigorous courses. This lack of equal opportunity disproportionately affects minority students within these SLCs. BHS’s SLCs must commit to giving their students access to AP classes.
In Communication Arts and Sciences (CAS ) and Arts and Humanities Academy (AHA), two of BHS’s SLCs, AP curriculum has already been integrated into the programs. For both schools, juniors have been required for the past several years to take AP English Language. In their senior year, both progress towards AP Literature. Both are modeled in an augmented style, which gives all students a GPA boost while only preparing students for the test if they choose to do so.
Emilio Huhndorf-Lima, a junior in the Academy of Medicine and Public Service (AMPS), tried to register for AP English Language in the spring of his sophomore year. Realizing that the process quickly became tedious, involving approval from a vice principal, he unraveled an ongoing issue within AMPS itself; it hadn’t been offering its students access to any AP course offerings for years. Huhndorf-Lima has been a key figure in fighting for better access for these students. He and his mother, Shari Huhndorf, have been working with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights in an open investigation against BHS.
Although Huhndorf-Lima was eventually granted access to AP Language, he wasn’t provided with the same experience as his AC junior peers. AMPS added two new AP classes to their curriculum, AP United States History and AP Government. “My experience has been lackluster to say the least,” Huhndorf-Lima said. “Compared to friends that I have who are in AC, the way (AMPS) AP US History is set up (is different). Unlike all the other AP classes, there’s no homework.”
“It is a civil right to have equal opportunities to education … I mean, just to put it plainly, it’s grouping people of color together and then not giving them enough opportunities to get into prestigious colleges,” Huhndorf-Lima said.
AMPS is a school predominantly made up of students of color, with 51% Black students, according to a 2012 Berkeley Unified School District report. The other small learning communities, which already offered AP classes, are not to the same extent. It being the only SLC to not have any AP offerings is detrimental to college applications, especially since more elitist institutions, which expect students to have competitive GPAs, several afterschool activities, and rigorous schedules. While AMPS does have honors classes in their programs, it is not the same as an AP course, which offers more college credit and a higher GPA boost.
“What I spent two years designing (my U.S. history course) to be is specific to the population to engage in the kind of students that we get in there,” said John Tobias, a teacher in AMPS. He caters his history program to the primarily Black and Latino population within the small school, but in reaction to the motion from the parents he has been trained and teaches a similarly augmented US history course.
However, the lack of homework and accountability makes it hard for the students in the program to stay on track, with nearly half of the students taking the course dropping out over the first year of the AMPS program. “I’m not prepared for this exam,” Huhndorf-Lima said.
“For students who want to go more in depth, I want to go there with them and don’t always have the time or the ability within the regular class day to do that … Students can get college credit.” Tobias explained, recognizing what AP courses can do for students. Despite the clear advantages, the school is still struggling to adequately prepare students for the exam.
The essence of AMPS is within the community you get, according to Tobias. It is explained to ninth graders that if they choose the SLC, it does mean giving up access to the AP options one would get in AC or BIHS. “It messes with our philosophy and one of the greatest values of schools and students in the same cohorts year after year. Taking the classes together. If you end up taking AP classes, you’re basically removing yourself from the community, which is the basis of why these things exist, and as the theory of why they are effective in getting students motivated and staying consistent, getting great outcomes and having a good time.”
Although this helps some students, it still creates an environment where the students in AMPS are disproportionately unprepared for the same test their peers in AC are taking. The SLCs must commit to adding AP classes to their course options, as doing so will lead to the creation of an equal environment for all students at BHS.