Perils And Promise: Rural Students And Access To Advanced Placement

Feb 1, 2016

First-year teacher Elisa Oliver stands in front of her wall of 'inspirational quotes' in her AP Statistics and Mathematics classroom.
Credit Leoneda Inge

Some teachers and schools administrators say one of the biggest obstacles to success for public school students in rural communities is poverty.  And research shows if you are poor, you have a good chance of being overlooked for gifted, honors or advanced classes.

In our series, Perils & Promise: Educating North Carolina’s Rural Students, we spoke with students in an Advanced Placement class in Vance County about their path to success.

You could say Elisa Oliver hit the ground running after graduating from Duke University last spring.  A few months after all that Pomp and Circumstance the 22-year-old was teaching an Advanced Placement Statistics class in Vance County Schools in Henderson.

Oliver’s classroom is full of inspirational quotes. 

"Be Silly, Be Honest, Be Kind.  That’s the background of my computer so they see that everyday, when I start class," Oliver said with a big smile.

Oliver is in Teach for America, which places high-achieving recent college graduates in mostly struggling school districts. Besides teaching AP Statistics, she also teaches Math 3, which includes a little bit of Geometry, Algebra II and Trigonometry.  No, her major was not Math.  It was Public Policy, with a minor in Education. 

The reality is, it’s hard to find and keep a good Math or Science teacher in rural school district’s like Vance, where the drop-out rate is high and so is the poverty rate.

“How many people in this classroom have parents who graduated from college?" Reporter Leoneda Inge asked the class.

The question was posed because numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics show, students whose parents never attended college are less likely to take advanced high school classes or to apply to college at all.  And college or some form of post-secondary education is a must in this new world of work.

Caroline Oakley is a 17-year-old senior at Northern Vance High School. She says her mother started college but did not finish.

“My mom is always like, take AP classes. I know this probably sounds bad, but it kind of gets you away from like the trouble students," said Oakley.  "And I feel like you get a better education because you don’t have as many people distracting the classroom and everything like that.”

Plus, Caroline’s boyfriend Lucas Hamrick is in the class.  They take all of their classes together and are in competition with each other.

"I have the higher GPA, but we both have the same grades," said Hamrick.  "It's 4.59."

It’s not surprising most of the students in this class are White.  Northern Vance High School is about 75-percent black.  This AP class is 30-percent Black. Dajohn Henderson is African American.  He says he was ahead in Math in 8th grade and he just followed the pack into this AP class.

“Last year I was in Pre-Calculus, so everybody in there was like, well anybody else want to do another math class, let’s all do AP Statistics.  And I was like, I’ll do that," said Henderson.

A friendly competition or a nudge from classmates is helpful in moving more disadvantaged students toward rigorous coursework, but is it enough? 

Sneha Shah Coltrane is the Director of the Division of Advanced Learning at the state Department of Public Instruction.   

“It’s important for every teacher, every school in every district to have high expectations for every child.  That is not an option.  We must have those high expectations," said Coltrane.

Research out of the University of New Hampshire shows only about half of the rural school districts across America have students enrolled in AP courses.  North Carolina stands out, though.  The North Carolina Advanced Placement Partnership is specifically working to broaden AP access in 23 rural school districts. Coltrane says that means all 115 school districts here have students enrolled in AP courses.

“The key is, how are we preparing our students, what types of frameworks are we building to support a culture of excellence in our schools," said Coltrane. "And ensure we haven’t put up some barriers that we may have not realized we’ve done?”

And the state has removed several barriers.  AP and International Baccalaureate exams are now free for all students.  And you know those students with GPA’s well over 4.0?  Well, starting with this year’s 9th graders, students who take any college approved courses, not just AP or IB, but even technical courses, will get that extra quality point – a move to help level the playing field that has traditionally given urban and suburban students a big advantage over their rural peers.