Increasing Minority and Underserved Student Attendance in the Advanced Programs in St. Johns County - Cambridge, AICE, IB & Dual Enrollment

Increasing minority student attendance in advanced programs in St. Johns County Florida

It is the time of the year, when parents and their 5th grade students begin thinking about middle school.

This is also, when it becomes apparent to many parents in our community that an equal education is not the same as an equitable education.

St. Johns County has been deemed the best school district in Florida for more than a decade, and there are some amazing programs available for students in our area including many advanced programs such as the Cambridge program at R.J. Murray Middle School, the AICE program at St. Augustine High School, the International Baccalaureate program at Pedro Menendez High School and the dual enrollment program at St. Johns River State College.

The sad truth is that even though the programs are there, they are unattainable for many students in underserved communities such as West Augustine.

The Webster School St. Johns County Florida

As an example, to get into the Cambridge program at R.J. Murray Middle School, located in West Augustine, a student must get mostly As, get 4s and 5s on the FSAs and receive a teacher's recommendation.

  • What if a 5th grade teacher is new to the school and the county and is unaware of the program?
  • What if a student has been cruising by in the middle, but has never been offered any opportunities to rise to his or her potential?
  • What if a student comes from a family, where extra education at home is just not feasible?
  • What if a student does not have access to books and educational materials outside of school?
  • What if parents do not know about the program until it is too late?
  • What if no one ever told a student that he or she could get into the advanced programs?

There are many what ifs. 

R.J. Murray Middle School St. Johns County Florida

A public-school education is great, but to keep students competitive, parents need to supplement that education at home, because it is not enough. If you are a working parent, a single parent or a grandparent this can be difficult to do, and how can we teach our children, if we ourselves struggled in schools or in specific classes?

Cynthia Williams, the Director of the Office for Innovation and Equity at the St. Johns County School District and her team have made progress this past school year by ensuring that more students of color are identified and enrolled in the advanced programs based on their test scores.

This is a great beginning, but it cannot be the end. It is not enough to get a few more students into the advanced programs, we also need to prepare them for these accelerated classes, so they can succeed. Even more so, we need to prepare and challenge our elementary students, so more students can get the opportunity to get admitted to and excel in these programs.

In an ideal world the St. Johns County School District would identify the underserved communities and set up afterschool enrichment programs at elementary schools in these communities to offer all those students interested a chance to get additional instruction. This would help elevate those students in the middle, who are often forgotten about, because they do not qualify for tutoring programs, and it would also help keep the students at the top motivated and challenged.

At the Webster School the need to do something has been identified, but there needs to be allocated funding behind any effort, and it should not be taking away funding designated to tutoring for the bottom quartile. We cannot rely on overworked teachers to volunteer their time without a proper financial compensation.

If we can build new fancy schools in the northern part of the county, we can surely find a way to fund twice-a-week academic enrichment and leadership programs at our elementary schools in the underserved communities.

The need to help elevate students in elementary school becomes even more evident, when you look at how the cycle continues. If a student qualifies for the Cambridge program at R.J. Murray Middle School, they attend advanced classes, which then increases their chances of getting into advanced classes in high school. If a student is accepted into the full AICE program at St. Augustine High School, it is a chance for them to earn the AICE Diploma and receive a scholarship for college.

A student in regular classes in middle school school is less likely to get into advanced classes in high school, and this student will also have a harder time qualifying for the dual enrollment program at St. Johns River State College, which is located less than two miles from the heart of West Augustine. To qualify for the free college classes, students need to get a certain score on the PERT test, the ACT or the SAT, and this is difficult, if the student has not taken certain high-level classes especially in math. When a student does not qualify, they are often told to wait until after their junior year in high school, and at that point they may be able to take one or two classes before graduation. 

This is not just a race problem, but race makes it a visible problem in the classroom. When students look around in their Cambridge classes at R.J. Murray Middle School, it is clear that students of color are not represented proportionately, when you consider that West Augustine has the highest number of families of color in the county. So while race needs to be a priority, when looking at enrollment in these advanced programs, it is essential that we also look at the socio-economic makeup of the community in which an elementary school is located.

The pattern continues on into high school, where minorities are underrepresented in AICE classes, and at the 2021 honors graduation ceremony at St. Augustine High School the minority students were few. 

This is not just a St. Johns County problem, and there are plenty of data and research supporting these observations, so much in fact that teachers seeking a gifted certification are required to learn about how the gifted tests are not created equally for minority students and for students from poor families. "The most significant educational problem in the U.S. is the fact that the achievement of minority children lags behind that of non-minority children," according to the research paper Addressing the Achievement Gap Between Minority and Non-Minority Children by Increasing Access to Gifted Programs by Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, Seon-Young Lee, Mephie Ngoi, & Daphne Ngoi.

As a mother of five children from West Augustine, I speak from experience. I know that not all children are the same and follow the same educational tracks, but all children should have the opportunity to find their own track and not just be stunted and left behind, because of where they come from or because of the color of their skin.

I am often puzzled by how difficult it has to be to get a student from West Augustine into the advanced programs. It is even more discouraging to see how few parents know about the programs or how to get their students into them. 

I understand, because even with a gifted student and even with a student getting straight As as well as 4s and 5s on the FSAs, the answers were few, and I had to actively advocate on my children's behalf, and even then I got few answers. 

What about the students, who do not have anyone advocating on their behalf?

When asked how to challenge my child in elementary school, I was told just wait until middle school. How can this be the standard for our elementary schools? How does this ensure that students in the elementary schools in underserved communities are prepared for the advanced programs? While we need to focus on the bottom-quartile students, it cannot be our only focus at the schools in underserved communities, or we will leave those students in the middle and at the top behind.

What can parents do?

# Learn more about the advanced programs at the schools your children are zoned for. Know the admissions requirements.

# Be your children's advocate. Start asking about admission into the advanced programs early, contact the school counselors at the school your student is zoned for. If you don't understand something, find someone who does. Don't be afraid to ask questions or ask to bring someone else into an IEP meeting, who may help advocate for your child.

# Know that your child does not have to start in full Cambridge. If your student is not strong in all subjects, advocate to have him or her at least start in part Cambridge. 

# Write to your local St. Johns County School Board member about increasing minority attendance and underserved student attendance into the advanced programs in the St. Johns County School District and ask them to provide funding for academic after-school enrichment programs at the underserved schools in our county. 

# Write to your school principals and tell them how important it is for us to have after-school programs at our elementary schools focused on academic enrichment, leadership and bridging the gap to help prepare our students for advanced programs. 

# Fill out the American Rescue Act survey, and tell them that "We need after-school programs at Webster, Osceola, Crookshank and South Woods elementary schools focused on academic enrichment, leadership and bridging the gap to help prepare our students for advanced programs, as few students of color get into Cambridge, AICE and Dual enrollment."

# Share this column with friends, family and on social media, so that more parents and teachers can become familiarized with the programs available, and why we need to do more to prepare students of color and from underserved communities for these programs.

# Make sure your children's education continues at home and start early. 

  • Khan Academy and are  great free resources.
  • Use the public library. If your child has a specific interest request books home from other libraries by reserving online.
  • Expose your children to documentaries, local history programs and take advantage of free events in our community.
  • Read with your children. Make sure they have access to reading materials they enjoy. Besides the library, the local thrift stores also have affordable books. 
  • Feed their hunger for knowledge.
  • Before they get screen time, make Khan Academy or other free educational programs a requirement.

# Sign your students up for free tutoring and programs at RESET St. Augustine.

#Victorious Covenant offers free tutoring for 3rd - 5th grade every Wednesday at the Webster School from 5:15 pm. 

# Attend the February 22nd We Can Night at the Webster School from 5:30 - 7 pm, where there will be a panel discussion on how to increase African American attendance and admission into the academy programs. This event is open to the community, and Osceola, Crookshank and South Woods families are more than welcome to attend. 

Sign up for We Can night here.

If you are a parent or student, who would like to know more, or who have a story about getting into or not getting into the advanced programs in St. Johns County, please don't hesitate to contact me or leave a comment below. We are stronger together, and change comes easier, when more people speak up.

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