Research shows that participation and success in rigorous courses like Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes significantly improve high school students’ educational outcomes and can alter their life trajectories for the better. Yet minority and low-income students are underenrolled in AP/IB courses at almost all of the U.S. high schools that offer them. This means that at least 580,000 such students, despite their potential, “go missing” from these classes each year.
The mission of Equal Opportunity Schools is to close race- and income-related enrollment gaps in AP and IB programs in thousands of America’s public schools. The organization offers each school it works with a five-phase, one-year service plan to help the staff reach the minority and low-income students who should be in AP/IB classes.
EOS first makes the case for change and aligns stakeholders. It then sets targets and launches an action plan, guides an efficient outreach and enrollment process, enhances program quality and academic supports, and plans for ongoing success of the initiative.
The nonprofit has already achieved success in pilot programs in South Carolina and California. At the South Carolina school, EOS doubled the size of the AP/IB program and tripled the number of African American participants in one year. In a California district, the organization nearly doubled districtwide Latino participation in AP/IB.
Significantly, in South Carolina, the pilot’s curricular enhancements increased the AP/IB test-pass rate by 20 percent, and the effect was felt by all students, regardless of ethnicity and income level. Such interventions are also shown to increase students’ engagement in classes, their academic abilities, and their educational achievements.
“The enhancements that are made to accommodate students who may not be used to such classes — such as making expectations and requirements more clear — benefit everyone,” explains Reid Saaris, Equal Opportunity Schools’ founder.
When he was 16, Saaris was put on the fast track, placed in advanced-level courses that would prepare him for college. His best friend, equally bright but from a lower-income background, was not.
“I’ve watched in the intervening years as my friend has struggled to make up for what was lost at that juncture,” says Saaris.
Aware of how a simple scheduling decision could lead to a new direction for one’s life path, Saaris went on to become a high school teacher in South Carolina. In his second year, he crossed paths with an African American student who was assigned to lower-level courses but clearly capable of more. Saaris literally walked the young man down to the school office to transfer him into advanced-level courses. For that student, this low-tech, low-cost intervention was transformational.
“I’ve accomplished things that I never thought I could,” he says. “The Equal Opportunity Schools approach has given me the chance of a lifetime.”
Such experiences led Saaris to conduct some in-depth research. He found that while African American, Latino, and low-income students are about as likely as their Caucasian or upper-income peers to attend schools that offer Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, hundreds of thousands of individuals who could handle the rigor miss out on such courses every year. In many cases, that’s because they have much less information about the AP/IB programs, their benefits, and how to register for them. Those particularly affected are first-generation college-bound individuals/college goers, English-language learners, and students whose parents and peers are unfamiliar with AP/IB.
These students can also face an expectation gap. Some teachers are less likely to expect these students to complete pre-college-level work, even when they’re seriously interested in going to college. Lower expectations lead to less encouragement, and underenrollment in AP/IB.
“This creates a vicious cycle,” says Saaris.
High schools could set up systems to ensure that capable students are enrolled in the classes that will best prepare them to achieve their college goals — but they typically don’t.
The Novel Idea
Equal Opportunity Schools aims to close race- and income-based enrollment gaps in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes in 4,400 target high schools by 2020. These schools, which have the largest enrollment gaps, include 86 percent of the so-called missing students who have what it takes to succeed in such courses.
Most school leaders are aware of any enrollment gaps in their AP and IB courses, and many are convinced of the importance of closing those gaps, but in many cases, they don’t believe that this can be done effectively in the short term. EOS uses research, case studies, and detailed analysis of each school’s own data to demonstrate both the feasibility and the strong positive impact of addressing gaps within one year. The organization shows, in particular, that successfully moving these students into AP or IB classes will lead to increases in student engagement and motivation, improved critical thinking skills and college readiness, and higher high school and college graduation rates.
At each school, EOS first gets the school leader behind the initiative, helping him or her solicit the support of other local stakeholders. From there, the organization works with teachers, communities, and student groups — or advises a principal or point person — to develop a viable action plan. Team members assist the school in establishing ambitious but feasible, measurable goals and tailoring student recruitment strategies to the specific cultural environment.
In settings with a strong equity-minded teaching staff, for example, EOS may suggest that teachers do grassroots outreach to students. In other cases, the organization may advise guidance counselors to conduct one-on-one meetings with potential AP/IB students and their families.
EOS also helps schools improve their AP/IB programs, collaborating with teachers to ensure that curricular content is accessible to first-generation college-bound students and those coming into AP/IB from non-honors classes. It supports checking students’ progress on a quarterly basis through exams and informal conversations. Finally, it strategizes with school leaders on ways to provide extra support for struggling students, such as after-school “AP Labs” and weekend review sessions.
EOS plans to work with a growing number of schools each year, scaling its efforts for maximum impact, until it reaches all targeted schools.
“Once schools are shown that the process does work and that the positive impact is so great, they’re not likely to slide back, which is what allows us to move on to new settings quickly and efficiently,” says Saaris.
Saaris received Stanford GSB’s Social Innovation Fellowship to get his nonprofit off the ground, and he is soliciting grant funding. Further financing will mostly come from consultancy fees paid by school districts.
“I feel an incredible urgency around this work,” says Saaris. “Most students are right across the hall from the education they deserve.”
Saaris graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in government, magna cum laude, and certification to teach secondary school social studies. His summa cum laude thesis received a Hoopes Prize for outstanding scholarly work. Our Latest Generation: The Civic Greatness of Young Americans disputes the idea that young Americans are disengaged and apathetic, and traces political inequalities back to inequity in educational opportunities.
After graduating, Saaris spent three years at a large rural high school in South Carolina, teaching history, economics, philosophy, and psychology and coaching soccer and cross-country running. In his last year, he headed the AP and IB programs at the school.
“I was committed to ensuring that no students in my school would be overlooked for participation in AP or IB because of the color of their skin or the size of their parents’ income,” Saaris says.
When the IB program grew by more than two times to become the largest in the state, Saaris believed he had found a relatively simple, high-impact method of reform that could transform the lives of “missing” students across the country. He founded Equal Opportunity Schools, and wrote a paper for The Education Trust in Washington, D.C., on the problem of missing students.
While attending Stanford GSB and the Stanford School of Education, he has been running EOS’s first district-level pilot in California. He graduated with a joint MBA/MAEd in June 2010, and now embarks on EOS’s first funded year.
Reid Saaris received an MBA from Stanford GSB and an MAEd from Stanford School of Education in 2010. He was awarded Stanford GSB’s Social Innovation Fellowship, which provides up to $180,000 in funding, along with advising and support, to graduating students who want to start a nonprofit venture that addresses a pressing social or environmental need during the year after graduation.