There's a Race Gap in the Toughest Classes at Most High Schools

But at T.C. Williams High School--of "Remember the Titans" fame--school leaders are expanding access to advanced courses.

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—It's the Monday after Thanksgiving, and Mr. Deville's 11th grade American history class is looking at a cartoon of Rep. Preston Brooks beating Sen. Charles Sumner with a cane. They've been asked to connect that 1856 incident with broader themes shaping the country's slide into civil war.

Nobody's saying much yet.

"All right. What's happening in Kansas?" asks Patrick Deville.

A girl sitting in the front row comes to his rescue. "Kansas-Nebraska Act," she says. She's wearing thick-framed glasses, and her hair is pulled into a sensible ponytail. "Bleeding Kansas," she adds, easily naming two historical events that put the congressional beat-down in context.

In the past, advanced courses at Alexandria's T.C. Williams High School have attracted disproportionate numbers of white and affluent students. But school leaders say that's changing. In Deville's class, which allows students to earn college credit, I counted 18 students and just five white faces. Most students were African-American, including the volunteer in the front row.

Throughout 2015, Next America will be following T.C. Williams as the school grapples with a challenge faced by schools nationwide: how to close achievement gaps by preparing more students from all backgrounds for college. It's a challenge with no single solution. But giving more students opportunities to take tough classes may be one intervention that can help.

T.C. Williams is a big, well-funded public high school in a pleasant neighborhood of red-brick houses. It routinely sends graduates to Ivy League universities. But about 60 percent of the school's students come from low-income backgrounds, and many don't go on to college at all.

Like so many schools, T.C. Williams struggles with an achievement gap that divides students by race and socioeconomic status. In 2011, black and Hispanic students made up more than 75 percent of the student body—but they were only half of the students taking as least one Advanced Placement class and just 40 percent of the group of elite students who passed every AP test they took, according to the U.S. Education Department.

Principal Suzanne Maxey would like to see more students in advanced classes. "I have this philosophy that our kids aren't pushed nearly as much as they should be," she says. That includes students who may not look like the traditional college-prep student. Taking tough classes can help students develop confidence, study skills, and life skills like persistence—even if they don't earn all A's.

Maxey was hired by the school district in 2010, after low standardized test scores led the federal government to label T.C. Williams a "persistently lowest achieving school." The school went through a reform process. Teachers and administrators took a hard look at every aspect of the institution, including enrollment in advanced classes.

At the time, T.C. Williams already offered a wide range of AP and dual-enrollment courses, both of which can allow students to earn college credits and potentially reduce the amount of college tuition they end up paying. Today, the school offers 27 of the former and 13 of the latter. Dual-enrollment courses, like Deville's American history course, are taught by high school teachers and offered in partnership with nearby Northern Virginia Community College.

In theory, T.C. Williams will allow any sophomore, junior, or senior to sign up for an AP class. Aspiring DE students just have to take a community-college placement test. In reality, broadening access to advanced courses is complicated. Not all students have completed the necessary prerequisites for advanced math and science classes. Even students who are prepared may need to be coaxed into taking a tough course and then sticking with it for a full year.

Many of the school's enrollment gains to date have been in the history and English departments. "When we say open enrollment, and we're empowering students to take advantage of advanced-level courses—it's often, for the first time, in the humanities areas," says Gregory Forbes, director of school counseling.

Forbes and his team look at all kinds of data to identify students who might be ready for college-level work but need an extra push. Reading ability is one important indicator, he says. Additional counselors were hired during the school's reform process, making it easier for counselors to meet with students one-on-one.

Once students get into a class, good teaching helps keep them there. The best AP and DE teachers at T.C. Williams know how to make all students feel welcome and to create assignments that challenge kids with different levels of preparation. And the school offers students extra academic support. Teachers swear by AVID—or Achievement Via Individual Determination—a nonprofit program designed to help students navigate advanced classes by teaching them study skills and providing extra assistance outside of classroom hours.

All of those efforts seem to be paying off. Forty percent of all T.C. Williams students took at least one AP test during the 2014-15 academic year, up from 30 percent in 2010 and 23 percent in 2005. Sixty-two percent of test-takers last year earned a passing grade or higher. Those test-takers may include DE students, who are encouraged to take corresponding AP exams.

The district hasn't released a demographic breakdown of the AP data, but teachers say classrooms seem to be getting more diverse. "You have a much greater range of ethnicities represented—and experiences and economic levels and even familiarity with English," says Matthew Zahn, cochair of the English department and an AP literature teacher.

The school district doesn't yet know whether expanded enrollment in advanced courses is encouraging more students to continue on to college. But Forbes and his counseling staff want college to be a possibility for more students. "Not every student is going to go to college," he says. "But it needs to be an option on the table. We need to prepare them, no matter what they decide to do in life."

Next America's Education coverage is made possible in part by a grant from the New Venture Fund.

Libby Isenstein contributed to this article