By the time Elizabeth Valenzuela entered her senior year at Lynwood High School, she had taken seven Advanced Placement tests and earned potential college credit on five of them. It was an impressive accomplishment, made more impressive still by the fact that in her small school district she wasn't one of a kind.
Increasing numbers of students from low-income Latino and black families are taking advanced courses and passing AP exams in Lynwood Unified School District, south of downtown Los Angeles.
To make this happen, the district of 15,000 students provided incentives and assistance and eliminated prerequisite courses and grade requirements that used to limit who enrolled.
Middling grades in English? That's OK. A student still can sign up for AP English Literature.
"If they want to challenge themselves, who are we to say no before they even try," said Lynwood Supt. Gudiel R. Crosthwaite. "We want our kids to believe in themselves so that they can envision themselves continuing their education."
The skills to be covered in AP courses are developed by the College Board, a New York nonprofit, with the goal of providing high school students with consistently rigorous coursework. Students' own high school teachers decide how they'll cover the material and grade the coursework. At the end of a course, students can choose to take an AP exam, which is sent off to the College Board to be scored on a scale of 1 to 5. A 3 or better is considered passing, and some colleges give credit for passing AP scores, which can help students jump right into advanced college courses or move through college more quickly, saving money.
This year, Lynwood became one of two L.A. County school systems named to the College Board's honor roll for significantly increasing their number of students taking and passing AP exams. (The other was comparatively prosperous Arcadia Unified School District.)
Before the change in thinking, advanced high school courses in Lynwood largely were reserved for the unofficial elite, such as students who'd been identified in elementary school as gifted. Each student also needed a letter of recommendation and a written commitment from a parent.
The idea was to make teens understand the courses' academic seriousness, but the result was too exclusionary, said Crosthwaite, who joined the school system in 2010 as director of the pre-high school program.
"We had students doing well academically, but they couldn't get into the AP program," he said.
In 2013, 427 students at the district's two comprehensive high schools took a total of 849 AP tests. This year, 823 students took 1,554 tests.
The scores aren't yet in for this year, but the student pass rate has improved somewhat over the first seven years of the effort, from 20% to 25%. The average pass rate in the United States is 22%.
The school district's hope is that the challenging AP courses inspire students to go straight from high school to college and help them do better when they get there. Research suggests that students who take more difficult high school classes fare better in college.
With the jump-start of a $1.4 million U.S. Department of Education grant, the district trained teachers to lead AP classes, and counselors and administrators worked to create a master schedule that let more students enroll in advanced courses. The school system also set aside some funds to pay teachers for the additional hours they spend on their AP courses and students outside of class time and during the summer, but it could not fund as much time as teachers decided on their own to devote to the task.
The $93 cost of each test also was removed as an obstacle. Outside aid programs cut the cost to $5 apiece for low-income students, which Lynwood picked up.
Valenzuela, whose parents' educations stopped at sixth grade, said her teachers — including Jonathon King for biology and Zohereh Sheibanifar for calculus — worked before and after school and on weekends to help students prepare for AP tests.
College counselors such as Kaytan Shah also did their part. "My friend did not want to take an AP class because she wasn't sure she would pass the class or do well," Valenzuela said, but Shah "told her she should try."
The Lynwood effort remains a work in progress. According to state tests, 47% of Lynwood 11th-graders met or exceeded academic goals in English, and 11% did so in math. And though the percentage of students taking AP tests doubled between 2013 and 2016, about 7 in 10 students in grades 10 and higher did not take an AP test this year.
Also, some of the district's success has to do with native Spanish speakers taking the AP Spanish test. Five times as many students passed the Spanish test as any other exam. The next highest number of passing scores was in AP Spanish Literature. Take away the Spanish tests, and the district's passing rate falls to 8%.
Still, students made gains in many of the tests, including calculus. In 2010, 29 students took the AP Calculus AB test, and not one earned a passing score. In 2015, 143 students took the test, and 17 passed.
Valenzuela struggled with Calculus AB last year and did not earn a passing AP score. This year, she kept at it and took the more difficult Calculus BC test along with other AP exams.
She's on her way to Columbia University on a full scholarship. She hopes to be a pediatric oncologist. And she has learned with the help of her most difficult classes that she thrives when pushed.
"I really enjoy learning," Valenzuela said. "I had the opportunity to take a challenging class and see what I was capable of."