Advanced Placement Classes Saved My Life

04/15/2014 12:40 EDT | Updated 06/15/2014 05:59 EDT

I can remember sitting in my Advanced Placement (commonly referred to as AP) classes throughout high school and counting on one hand how many girls who looked like me were in the class. Sometimes there would be one or two, but more than likely it was just me and just maybe one more girl in the class. Despite nobody looking like me in class, Advanced Placement classes were a place that made me feel as if I belonged and as if all of the socioeconomic issues I dealt with were in far away universe.

To give you a little bit of my background, I wasn't one of the kids who were tracked for AP while in middle school. I hung around the wrong crowd, I sometimes talked back when I felt like the learning didn't matter and most of all I came from the wrong side of of the "tracks" in life. However during my sophomore year, one of the AP teachers, Mrs. Scott , pulled me to the side and encouraged me to take her AP World History class. I had always been interested in history, but it never crossed my mind to take an AP World History class. I thought "those" classes were reserved for the "good" kids who always made A's in all of their classes.

Despite my reservations, I took Mrs. Scott's advice and selected one AP class for my sophomore year. To my surprise I excelled in the class and at the end of the year I scored a four out of five on the Advanced Placement exam. The confidence that one class gave me, propelled me to think that maybe these classes were really worth all the work we did in them. From that moment on, I registered for every social science Advanced Placement course offered at my high school. By the time I graduated I had taken all the courses I could at the school. Even though I couldn't afford to take all of the Advanced Placement exams at the end of each year, I realized that my Advanced Placement courses saved my life while in high school.

Before Mrs. Scott came to me and asked me to take her class, I was on the verge of dropping out of school. I had habitually skipped school at least two days of every week and I hid the fact from my parents by actually going to school and then leaving after homeroom. We weren't lucky enough to have a home phone so I never worried about those annoying "call and post" messages that would alert my mother that I wasn't at school. Back then social workers were non-existent in schools and because I wasn't known as a "good" kid, teachers looked the other way when I wasn't there. I was doing horribly in math and science, but luckily I was half way interested in my Social Studies and English classes so I (sometimes) made up work in those classes.

The day Mrs. Scott came to me about AP happened to be the day when I received my progress report for the first four weeks of the second semester and despite my lack of effort I was still mad that I was failing all of my classes. I had already made up my mind that I would stop attending school all together and just try and get a job. However, that one conversation changed my life at school and I became that student who suddenly cared about turning in papers; The student who started coming to school; The student who began to make up work; The student who realized that maybe school could be important; The student who cared.

While being selected to be in Advanced Placement courses saved me, it always made me wonder how many more "at risk" kids these classes could help? What if students who had the ability were offered to take classes that were so rigorous that it forced them to be engaged? According to College Board, over the past decade, the number of students who graduate from high school having taken rigorous AP courses has nearly doubled, and the number of low-income students taking AP has more than quadrupled.

For me being in an AP class was great because I was treated as an adult. Teachers used strategies that I did not get a chance to see in my regular classes. I could come in class and have discussions about the early civilizations of Rome and China or analyze if characters were morally ambiguous in AP Literature. In these classes, I was forced to think and that held my attention.

So what can schools and/or teachers learn from my story? It's simple -- Advanced Placement programs can be the glue to keep kids in school. These seemingly harder classes have the potential to really "tug" at kid's interests and make them accountable for their interests. Every school that offers Advanced Placement classes should consider doing the following:

1. Expose students to AP classes in all subject areas not just in the core areas. Students should have the chance to take AP Art, AP Latin, AP Music Theory, etc. As a school community, we should find out the areas that students excel in and give them chances to be great in those area and being in AP classes is a great start. Many times kids are only exposed to Advanced Placement in core classes and other subject areas are neglected.

2. Make Advanced Placement classes available to any student in the school. While this may make teachers shudder, it really means that we're allowing kids to determine they're readiness for a class. Even though we allowed all students to register, everyone went through an AP Bootcamp to ready them for the expectations in the class. Parents had to sign permission slips, students had to take oaths and teachers prepared students for a rigour that they were not used to in their regular classes. When we only allow a certain population of students the ability to take Advanced classes, we're prejudging students and their abilities. Unless you were a class that I cared about, there's no way anyone could have known that I would excel in more rigorous classes. Without those classes I would have been another statistic.

3. Give teachers the freedom to change their strategies in an Advanced Placement class. In this age of over testing and standardizing what happens in the classroom, Advanced Placement teachers need the ability to change the way their classroom operates. In my world history class, my teacher ran our class as small groups of independent study who worked on different assignments based on where we were in our studies. For the outsider coming into our class I'm sure it looked as if the class was fragmented, but in actuality this gave our teacher time to work with us in smaller groups.

4. Encourage students to actually take the Advanced Placement exams at the end of each course- regardless if the students are able to pay for the test at the end of the year. I can distinctively remembering making a 4 on my practice AP Literature exam, but I didn't take AP exam because I did not have the money to take the exam. Looking back, it would have been simple for me to ask a teacher or somehow come up with the money on my own, but I was too ashamed of the fact that I was in a class with students who lived in mansions and my family was just trying to survive. Schools should have a plan in place to help those students who have enrolled in the classes and may need assistance at the end of the semester.

Looking back at my schooling after high school, I can reflect on the fact that being exposed to what college was going to be like and the maturity needed to succeed there. Now I ask you, do you think that advanced placement courses are a tool to keep "at risk" kids engaged in school?