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The Great Divide

Cambridge high school struggles with equal access to AP classes

Lwam Mahari, a student in an AP US history class at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, plans to take the AP exam this spring.
Lwam Mahari, a student in an AP US history class at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, plans to take the AP exam this spring.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

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CAMBRIDGE - For decades, the high school in this famously diverse and progressive city has waged war on its achievement gap. Twenty years ago, officials at Cambridge Rindge and Latin tried eliminating the school’s "house” system that divided students into schools-within-schools, saying it segregated them by race; soon after, the school created heterogeneous classrooms that mixed together students with differing academic abilities. Three years ago, the school made another landmark change to stamp out racial segregation, mandating honors English and history courses for all freshmen.

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But according to one key measure, none of the efforts have worked.

A Boston Globe analysis of state data found that when it comes to Advanced Placement test taking, Black students are more underrepresented in Cambridge than in any of the 13 other towns and cities bordering Boston. Last year, just 9 percent of the 433 students who took AP exams in Cambridge were Black — although Black students made up nearly 30 percent of the enrollment at the high school.

AP students Alexander Leith (left) and Amelie Jamanka at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin.
AP students Alexander Leith (left) and Amelie Jamanka at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

The stubborn persistence of the gap, in the face of repeated attempts to wipe it out, has contributed to recent racial tensions at the high school, where some Black students say they still feel like outsiders. And it sharply underscores the difficulty of this widespread problem: even a place as seemingly progressive and well-intentioned as Cambridge struggles mightily.

Naia Aubourg, a 2018 graduate of Rindge and Latin, said she and many of her Black classmates were funneled into lower-level courses beginning in middle school, and teachers and counselors at Rindge and Latin never explained AP to her. Now a sophomore in college, Aubourg said she had to take extra preparatory courses to catch up when she arrived on campus as a freshman.

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"The opportunities in high school were only there for people who knew how to access them,” she said.

It is a vexing, deeply painful problem for Cambridge, one that has long been detailed in reports and lamented at public meetings. School officials said a series of major changes in recent years should make AP classes more diverse in time. But they acknowledged that the problem has deep and complicated roots, and that there is no easy fix.

"We recognize that it’s not going to happen overnight, that it’s probably going to be a number of years . . . and there is frustration that the pace of change isn’t faster,” Superintendent Kenneth Salim said.

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First created in the 1950s, Advanced Placement courses boomed in popularity in recent decades. Considered one of the most rigorous curricula in high schools, they are widely seen as critical college preparation. But Black and Latino participation has lagged, and the College Board — the New York nonprofit that oversees the program — has in recent years urged high schools to remove obstacles to enrollment and strive for AP classes that more closely resemble their student populations.

That effort remains a work in progress. Nationally, Black students are 15 percent of all public school students, but only 9 percent of AP exam takers, according to the College Board. In Massachusetts, 9 percent of students are Black, as are 6 percent of AP test takers. Latino students face a wider divide: 21 percent of all Massachusetts students, they represent only 10 percent of AP exam takers.

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Even more troubling, perhaps, is the disparity in AP exam scores, state data show. In Cambridge, white students took 411 AP tests last year and 89 percent received scores of 3 or higher out of a top score of 5, which could qualify them for college credit. By contrast, of the 50 exams taken by Black students, only 48 percent received scores in the same range.

Educators, community members and students in Cambridge said several specific policies and practices have contributed to the AP gap. Those have included a lack of basic education about AP and cumbersome entrance requirements to some AP classes, such as prerequisite courses and teacher recommendations.

And then there’s the way students have been labeled and separated by their perceived abilities, a practice known as "tracking,” which, despite high-profile counter-initiatives, has flourished periodically at both the middle and high school levels in Cambridge.

Aubourg, 19, said her course was set in middle school, when many Black students were "tracked” into a path of lower expectations. Aubourg’s mother worked long, demanding hours when her daughter was in high school, and was unfamiliar with Advanced Placement. Aubourg was an upperclassman by the time she learned — via "word of mouth” — how to access the school’s menu of advanced offerings.

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Elaina Wolfson, another 19-year-old graduate of Rindge, said early tracking permanently consigned too many Black and Latino students to a path that did not prepare them. "It’s so hard to push past that barrier,” she said.

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Determined to improve the experience of Black students, Cambridge school officials have attacked their achievement gap anew in recent years. As part of a multiyear initiative known as "Leveling Up,” the district did away with tracking for English and social studies classes in the first two years of high school. Heterogeneous "honors for all” classes were phased in for freshmen in English two years ago, and then in social studies last year. Physics is taught in mixed-ability classrooms to all freshmen.

Next, the district tackled tracking in middle school math classes, ending its achievement-based grouping system for seventh graders last year and for eighth graders this year.

The approach also intensifies support for students: A summer "preview” class boosts confidence for nervous AP students; two new freshman guidance counselors help explain course options; and teachers use results from the PSAT - taken by sophomores and juniors - to help identify those with AP potential.

Leaders said they have tried to learn from past mistakes. Twenty years ago, when the Cambridge school district made a controversial switch to "achievement-blind” high school classes, teachers received little preparation, and struggled to teach to the wider range of skills in their classrooms. This time, Salim, the superintendent, said the school system spent a year preparing educators, re-working curriculum, and consulting outside experts before making changes. They also sent two deans to Evanston, Ill., to study the successful measures used at Evanston Township High School to bolster Black and Latino enrollment in AP.

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"Historically, individual principals or administrators have had bold ideas, but they lacked the collective support of the district as a whole,” Salim wrote in an e-mail.

Yet Salim and Damon Smith, the high school’s principal, acknowledged that vestiges of the past remain, including some teachers who may still selectively steer students away from AP.

The overall percentage of AP students who are Black and Latino has not budged, three years into the school’s "leveling up” initiative. Yet there are signs that change is taking root. Two current sections of AP US history mirror the overall diversity at the high school, which is 43 percent Black and Hispanic and 38 percent white.

One afternoon last month, those AP classes were filled with attentive sophomores — the majority of them, students of color — who listened intently to a lesson spanning the Red Scare, the Ku Klux Klan, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the Harlem Renaissance.

Nearly all the students in both AP classes said they had been encouraged by a teacher to enroll. Most said that in the beginning, they felt nervous and intimidated. But all are planning on taking more AP classes.

One student, Herani Hiruy, 15, said some of her other honors classes are mostly white. Often, she said, she stays silent in those classrooms, reluctant to join in discussions because she is Black.

"You can tell that other people notice you’re the only person of color,” she said, "and you feel like you’re representing a whole group.”

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Some students, teachers, and community residents said programmatic changes alone will never erase the divide. Real transformation, they said, will require a hard, unflinching look at the racism that persists at Rindge and Latin.

Two years ago, members of the high school’s Black Student Union drew public attention to the everyday presence of racism at their school, detailing their experiences in a series of gut-wrenching videos. Members of the group described slights, insults, and microaggressions from teachers who stereotyped them or doubted their potential.

In one video, a student recounted the teacher who, assuming she might be on "welfare,” told her she could get a fee waiver to take an AP exam.

The videos sparked outrage, including on the part of some teachers who felt they had no way to respond or offer context. More upheaval followed, after a white Cambridge School Committee member uttered the n-word during a 2018 visit to a high school class to discuss why the school’s computers block some racial slurs but not others.

Tensions flared again in December, when a long-awaited report on the n-word incident cast blame for it on a Black teacher — the adviser to the Black Student Union — who had invited the committee member to the class. In response, the student union demanded policy changes to address racism and inequities at the school.

Current Black Student Union members did not respond to interview requests. But Aubourg, who helped reinvigorate the dormant organization when she was a student at Rindge, said it was painful and eye-opening to see how some people reacted to Black students’ stories of mistreatment.

"Cambridge is famous for panels, meetings, conversations, and they’ve been having them for 30 years,” she said. "But it’s a sugar-coated conversation. No one wants to go [into] the nitty-gritty of what’s going on.”

Aubourg believed she and her classmates of color were seen as less capable by some educators. And some students internalized that bias.

Rachel Williams-Giordano, an AP US history teacher at the high school, said she has encountered some Black students who fear ridicule for seeking more challenging coursework.

"It’s not that the classes are too hard,’’ said Williams-Giordano, who is Black. "It’s that it’s not socially accepted among some of the students of color . . . It’s like, 'You’re trying to be white’ or 'You’re nerdy.’ ‘’

Caroline Hunter, a former teacher and administrator who worked at Rindge and Latin for 34 years, was a member of the "Concerned Black Staff” who produced a 1980s report exposing a racial divide in student achievement. She is stunned that the same problems persist today.

"The question,” she said, "is why is Cambridge still dealing with this tale of two cities?’’

Partial funding for this initiative is provided by the Barr Foundation, a Boston-based foundation that has made student success in high school and beyond a top priority. The Globe has complete editorial control over story selection, reporting, and editing.




Jenna Russell can be reached at jenna.russell@globe.com. Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.