Editorial: Martin Luther King Would Certainly Have Been an AP Student

This week, children across the country celebrated the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Dr. King’s “March on Washington” nearly fifty years ago under the theme of “jobs and freedom.” This event signified an important step in the long uphill climb for minority students, toward freedom through education.  As U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, “Freedom is the ability to think and to pursue your own path—and only education can give you that freedom.”

This year there are 4,000 African-American students in Alabama who are now able to take the path toward freedom by enrolling in rigorous Advanced Placement (AP) courses.

In the early years of Advanced Placement, participants were largely male and primarily students from private prep schools and elite public schools. And no wonder, the idea for the program emerged from elite colleges, prep schools, and high schools as a way of accelerating and fortifying the education of the nation’s future leaders in anticipation of Cold War national-security demands.

But no longer are we, as a nation, underestimating the intellectual capacity and commitment to success of students from far less-privileged upbringings.  We have learned our lesson through leaders like Dr. King, who was such a precocious student he skipped both the ninth and the twelfth grade and entered Morehouse College at age fifteen.

We are surrounded by other examples from today’s generation of students, such as Rudy Davis, a sophomore at Auburn University majoring in Biomedical Sciences. Rudy was raised by a single mom who worked two jobs to support the family.  Rudy was a high school sophomore when Minor High School was chosen to receive funding to expand the AP program. Before that year, the school in Adamsville, Alabama didn’t offer much in the way of AP courses for its students. With 56 percent of the largely African-American student body living at or below poverty level, the school – and its students – never had the resources to make the most of the College Board’s AP program.  But all of that changed when the Jefferson County School District agreed to aggressively open the doors of AP to far more students who had not previously had the opportunity to participate.

In the first year of the program, Rudy said that 90 students enrolled in four sections of his AP biology class because as he put it, “there was so much pent-up demand for more challenging classes.”  Rudy was one of those students. He enrolled in three AP courses during his junior year and five during his senior year. During December of his senior year, after participating in eight Advanced Placement courses, he took the ACT test and scored a 31 (up from a 25 in his sophomore year,) and ranked in the 99 percentile in math and science.  Rudy was ultimately offered over two million dollars in college scholarships.

Minor is one of 64 schools that are now a part of the same A+ College Ready’s Advanced Placement Training and Incentive Program (APTIP) – allowing minority students, like Rudy and others who would have never had the opportunity, to achieve their dreams. Minority students who began the program in 2008 have seen a 223% increase in qualifying scores on AP exams, and as a results of this success, Alabama ranked number one among all 50 states in percent increase in minority qualifying scores on AP math, science and English exams from 2008 to 2011.

Fortunately, Alabama law-makers are supportive of new and innovative programs, like APTIP aimed at empowering minority students to achieve greater academic success.  The National Math and Science Initiative gave the initial grant for the APTIP program and the Alabama Legislature and State Board of Education have provided over $5 million in matching funds, and foundations and corporations another $2 million.  These dollars are proof of the shared commitment to achieving true equity in education.

I don’t believe any of us will be satisfied until the proportion of African American students passing AP exams in Alabama, mirrors the overall percentage of African American students in Alabama public schools – but until then I think that we can be proud of the progress we are making.  With the opportunity to expand this work, the education equality that Dr. King dreamed of will bring personal and economic freedom to the students of Alabama.

Caroline Novak is president of the A+ Education Partnership.   A+ College Ready is an operating division of the A+ Education Partnership.  She may be contacted at [email protected].

To read a version of this article in the Montgomery Advertiser click here .