The Importance of Rigor: Why All Students Need Advanced Science Courses

In late September, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the National Women’s Law Center released a report on the systemic barriers faced by African American girls in schools across the country. The publication is particularly well-timed given the recent 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which helped establish every student’s right to a high quality and equal education.

The report, entitled “Unlocking Opportunity for African American Girls,” reveals the persistent inequality and disadvantages faced by African American girls today. Too often, African American girls attend schools that lack resources, advanced courses, or extracurricular opportunities, and this impacts their future educational and economic outcomes. This pervasive problem—a combination of both limited access and discouraged participation—got us thinking about one of our biggest initiatives for the year: increasing the rigor of all classes, while expanding our scholars’ exposure to college-level courses and real-world issues.

The report exposes some grave statistics: across the country, “only 57% of African American high school students have access to the full range of math and science offerings (Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, Calculus, Biology, Chemistry, Physics) in their schools,” compared to 71% of white high school students.

Additionally, while African American girls comprise 16% of high school enrollment, they are enrolling in both basic math and science and AP math and science courses at far lower rates than their peers.

Recognizing the importance of advanced courses for all students, Sci Academy enrolls every senior we serve in an Advanced Placement (AP) Environmental Science course.

To share what makes this class so important, and why opportunities like this should be offered to all students—girls and boys—across the country, we decided to sit down with Spencer Sherman, our AP Environmental Science teacher, and a few students who are currently enrolled in this course.

What do you like about the AP Environmental Science (APES) course?

Spencer Sherman, APES teacher (SS): AP Environmental Science is an incredibly applicable course. Climate change and environmental degradation are major global issues. They are literally in the news every single day. The solution and the problem require advanced knowledge.

Tyanna Crump, scholar (TC): You hear about global warming but the moment you actually learn about it, you see it in a different light. You start to understand it.

Deja Smith, scholar (DS): I see stuff that I never thought was happening, global warming and the earth and everything. It really excites me. It makes me want to do something. I am helping my mom try to decrease her use of harmful hair products. I just want to help the Earth!

There are a lot of schools in America that don’t offer classes like APES, and lots of girls who choose not to take these courses. Why do you think this happens, and why is it a problem?

TC: I think it’s because a lot of schools only want to focus on giving people in poor communities the basics. They make sure you know English, reading, writing. Science isn’t always seen as something that is majorly important. But things like this influence us, and it is important to know what’s going on in the world.

DS: When I tell my friends I have big tests coming up for APES, they have never heard of it. APES, advanced placement—a lot of my friends are surprised that I take these classes. They don’t have this kind of stuff. The only thing they have is sports. I think everyone should have this course. It will really make people open up their eyes.

How has the course changed over the past several years?

SS: They say it takes five years to build an AP program. I think we’re still in the building process. This is the year that things seem to be clicking in a way that they hadn’t before. I think this is a year when we’re making significant progress. We have more content this year, and we’ve already had a project and high Interim Assessment scores. There’s a huge learning process, though. This is college level. If kids are not coming in at college level, how do you make sure they can still access this high bar?

This year, I changed the structure of the course. I started with a case study of global warming. Global warming introduces the problems and framework; the first half of the course is natural cycles in the absence of human impact, then the second half of the course looks at how it changes with human impact.

In your experience, how do scholars typically respond to this course?

SS: As a general trend, kids are initially very nervous. If you saw them coming in, at another school some people might think that these kids were not on track to take an AP. Here, we believe all kids can and will take AP courses. I think we’re a school that always pushes kids to grow, sometimes faster than they know they can. I don’t try to water anything down.

Every kid needs to take an AP, every kid is going to push to achieve at a collegiate level. This leads to kids having more self-confidence, a better knowledge about the world around them, a greater sense of self, a greater sense of potential. Every single person can leave with college skills.

What do you want to be when you grow up? Where do you see APES fitting into it?

DS: I want to be a registered nurse. I want to go to Louisiana Tech. I’ve talked to someone who is a nurse, and she’s told me I will need science as a background, so APES is helping me get there. I also need math. One thing I know I will take with me is my soft skills: grit, self control. I’m going to get all my soft skills at Sci Academy to help me with my goals, and APES will help me develop these skills.

TC: I know I want to take psychology. I really like the human mind and understanding how people interact and turn the occurrences in their life into who they are. APES connects with that because I’m learning about the world and I’m learning about the people who control most of the things in the world. To see how some countries can agree to put caps on CO2 and others don’t—this says a lot about their values and affects all the people who are in the world. I can take that knowledge, and help make a difference.

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