With the new school year just underway, Judith Carillo is a bit nervous.

Since her mother’s return to Mexico four years ago, Carillo has lived in Santa Ana with her older sister and, for the most part, takes care of herself, including purchasing her own clothes and school supplies.

Yet the energetic Segerstrom High junior has still managed to stay involved in a half-dozen sports and clubs. She also has ambitions to attend a top-flight college, with Northwestern and Georgetown University on her short list.

But in order to have a real shot at one of these schools, Carillo realizes she has to enroll in Advanced Placement classes.

More and more, top colleges expect to see Advanced Placement, or AP, classes on students’ transcripts. The classes are taught like lower-division college courses and require more homework than regular honors classes. At the end of the year, students take a three-hour test, much like a college exam, on the entire course’s material.

“For many colleges and universities, especially very competitive ones, [AP courses] are the difference of getting in, the difference from being a competitive versus minimally eligible applicant,” said Melba Schneider Castro, who oversees a variety of college access programs as director of Educational Partnerships at Cal State Fullerton.

While this means higher hurdles for all students looking to get into a selective college, it disproportionally hits students like Carillo who come from low-income neighborhoods and oftentimes non-traditional households.

“It’s a lot harder not living with my mom, it’s different kind of pressure. Living with my sister has made me understand that once I turn 18, if I don’t go to college, I’m kind of on my own,” Carillo said.

The disparity becomes evident with a quick look at AP enrollment numbers and pass rates among local school districts. At Irvine Unified, where 13 percent of students are from low-income families, nearly 60 percent of juniors and seniors are taking AP tests, with a pass rate of 88 percent.

In Santa Ana Unified — where the percentage of low-income students is 91 percent — about 40 percent of juniors and seniors take an AP exam. And among those who take the tests, 37 percent get a passing score.

Help From the College Board

Aware of how such realities could only widen already large achievement gap facing their students, Santa Ana Unified School District officials are taking steps to improve the district’s AP course offerings and encourage more students to enroll in the classes.

The number of students taking exams has almost tripled between 2004 and 2012, from 1,292 to 3,374. Although district-wide pass rates have generally gone down as the number of students testing increases, the last few years show scores are improving, especially at individual schools.

And this school year, a grant from the College Board will fund a new AP Calculus BC course at three of Santa Ana Unified’s highest poverty schools, Santa Ana, Valley and Saddleback High, where 95 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch.

Success varies school-to-school. Segerstrom High has the highest pass rate for the 2012-13 school year, with 52.9 percent of students getting a passing score of 3 or higher on the exam, followed by Godinez with 48.2, Saddleback with 45.6, Century with 40.8 and Valley High School with just 18.2 percent.

Some schools also have more students participating than others, with 7.2 percent of Segerstrom students enrolled in an AP class, compared to 3.6 at Valley High, the lowest performing school.

Dawn Miller, the district’s assistant superintendent of secondary education, said the low overall pass rates are due in part to a district policy that allows any student to take an AP course as long as they have the right prerequisites. Although students are advised to take classes where they will do well, there’s no grade or overall GPA requirement for students to move on to an AP rather than an honors course.

“Because we advocate an open access policy, you’re going to see a [student with a] 4.0 GPA and you might see a 2.5 who really wants to push themselves,” Miller said.

The district does outreach to students with the potential to do well in AP classes, based on their PSAT scores, and encourages those students to enroll.

The district has also been recognized on the College Board’s AP Honor Roll as one of 29 California school districts showing sustained growth in enrollment of low-income students enrolling in AP while also maintaining or improving passing scores

Seeking a Change in Culture

While the district appears to be improving AP enrollment and pass rates, improving overall college readiness requires schools to start talking to students long before they’re old enough to take an AP class, Schneider Castro says.

Even students who intend to go to college and already perform well in school don’t always understand that they can be successful in AP courses.

“We have to take a step back — in communities with a large percentage of students who are low-income, they may not understand that they can afford higher education, that they have the potential to go to college and get a degree,” Castro said.

Students can also be discouraged from entering harder classes based on past grades or test scores.

In middle school, Carillo felt her English class was too easy and asked to move to an honors course. Her counselor told her that her standardized testing scores were too low.

“She said that it would be impossible for me to do the course work. I felt discouraged, because a standardized test doesn’t really show all your strengths,” Carillo said. “At my [high] school, you get choices and also the responsibility to pick your own classes.”

Joseph Camacho, a freshman at Cal State Fullerton, said going to college was always a “no-brainer,” but it wasn’t until a counselor at his school in Anaheim suggested taking an AP course that he even considered it.

“I was always the guy who settled into the classes they placed me in. I was very comfortable taking honors,” he said. “A lot of [my peers] don’t see the bigger picture in terms of how [Advanced Placement] can help them in the long-run, or didn’t take advantage of counseling services.”

He and his older sister Natalie Camacho, a sophomore at Fullerton, both participated in AP classes and a college readiness program called Gear Up at Katella High School in Anaheim.

“When I first started [AP] I was very timid, not really sure how to approach critical thinking. As the year went by I was able to speak up more in the classroom [and] ask the why, instead of just sitting there and let the teacher tell me how it is,” Natalie said.

In Santa Ana, the program Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, targets academically average students starting in the fourth grade and offers academic support, college counseling and professional development.

John Ninofranco, an AP Calculus teacher at Godinez High, emphasizes good counseling and clear communication with teachers to pushing students to take more rigorous courses. Programs like AVID, he notes, help make the campus a close-knit resource community that help students figure out their strengths and weaknesses in preparation for college.

“Our students are very well counseled, they are encouraged to take my class, and I think we do a lot of communication to discuss if a student is capable of taking the class. We typically don’t lose a lot of students,” he said.

In addition to a tutoring program that is available before and after school, most teachers are available outside of class, including their lunch hour.

Now in college, Natalie Camacho volunteers her time mentoring other students from low-income and first-generation families so they can get ahead.

“I have a sister in junior high, and even at that level I’m already talking to her about college and what she wants to do as a career,” she said. “And I’m just a few steps ahead of [my brother], which is good because it makes him even a little bit more prepared.”

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