The 50 students haven’t even started ninth grade yet, but they’re gathered this summer at a high school for a special program on statistics, language and social awareness taught by teachers who specialize in Advanced Placement (AP) classes.

The ”Come West 9” program at Westlake High School is part of a broad effort within the Fulton County Schools system, one of six urban school districts recently recognized by a national education group for boosting participation and performance among black students on AP exams, which students can take for college credit while still in high school.

The goal at the metro Atlanta program is to reach not just gifted students but those who think of college as a destination, not a dream.

”I tell my students, ‘You are not coming into this program to fail. You are not coming into this program to not go to college,”’ said teacher Chantrise Sims-Holliman, who coordinates the program. ”We do not want mom and dad to have to pay for college. We want college to pay for you.”

On a recent day, one group of students debated an essay on why people lie. Another group analyzed census data on poverty and race. A major emphasis is placed on AP courses, and nearly every student in the program has signed up for AP Human Geography as freshman in the fall.

The Broad Foundation’s recent report found that the gap in participation and passing rates on AP exams between White and Black students remains significant.

In most districts, the report found, access to and participation in AP exams have gone up, but passing rates have gone down. Cited throughout the report is the benefit of reaching children early. At Westlake High, where 98 percent of the student body is Black and 58 percent come from low-income families, that’s the driving force behind ”Come West 9” and a sister program called ”Come West 8,” which involves busing in a group of 80 eighth-graders daily during the school year for a half-day of high school-level courses.

”We’re reaching all the way down to middle school to identify the kids who are motivated and bring them up,” Westlake principal Grant Rivera said.

In recent years, access to AP courses has increased considerably, no longer limited to those with top grades and teacher recommendations. But as participation has expanded, racial and economic disparities have persisted.

Nationally, Black students accounted for 14.5 percent of high school graduates, but just 9.2 percent of those taking AP exams and 4.4 percent of those scoring three or higher, according to an annual report by The College Board, which administers AP exams in subjects ranging from U.S. history to English language and composition.

In addition to Fulton County Schools, the other districts cited for gains were the Cobb County School District, also in metro Atlanta; Garland Independent School District in Texas; Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky; Orange County Public Schools in Florida; and San Diego Unified School District in California.

At Westlake High, students in the ”Come West 9” program repeatedly hear about the benefits of participating in AP courses and graduating from college. During one session, students were asked to list the most important reasons for earning a college degree. Some of those discussed: better access to health care, more self-confidence and less dependence on government assistance.

For Brian Woolfolk, a 13-year-old from Atlanta participating in the ”Come West 9” program, the goal is to eventually pass as many AP exams as possible.

”If you have that, it shows colleges that you are taking more advanced classes and are serious about college,” Woolfolk said.

(Photo: In this Thursday, June 13 photo, Elizabeth Hinmon, 13, learns about calculating percentages during a statistics class at Westlake High School in Atlanta. Hinmon is one of 50 incoming students participating in Westlake’s Come West 9 summer program intended to reach out to gifted students in pursuit of a college education. The program, one of several initiatives happening within the Fulton County Schools system, was recently recognized by a national education group for boosting participation and performance among black students on Advanced Placement exams. (AP Photo/Jaime Henry-White))

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