In middle school, Enihs Medrano was smart.
She took advanced classes but she wasn’t the kind of super-achieving student teachers notice and praise. Instead, in her advanced classes, she attracted attention in a different way. She disrupted class, came in late, got detentions.
“I was a smart ass,” she said. “I was a leader for all the wrong reasons.”
Much of her angst stemmed from being the only or one of two students of color in advanced classes -- a common experience in Colorado. If you walk into most advanced high school classes, there is a sea of white faces.
A bill that will soon await the governor’s signature aims to close that gap by encouraging schools to automatically enroll students in advanced courses like the ones Medrano was in. Backers of Senate Bill 19-59 argue advanced courses are a powerful strategy to prepare young people for college.
But Medrano, now a senior at Centaurus High in Lafayette, and a group of her fellow high schoolers aren’t waiting: Over the past few years, they’ve pushed their own way into advanced classes.
Even students from low-income backgrounds and traditionally disadvantaged minorities who are ready for higher-level courses do not enroll at the same rate as their more privileged peers, according to data from the Office of Civil Rights and the Colorado Department of Education.
Half of the student body is white in Colorado, but those students are overrepresented if you look at AP class enrollment. In terms of proportion, two-thirds of AP students are Caucasian. Meanwhile, in Colorado, a third of students are Hispanic and 4.6 percent are black. But in 2015-16, just 17.9 percent of Hispanics and 3.3 percent of blacks took AP classes.
A significant body of research strongly suggests that students who are exposed to high quality, college-level learning experiences in high school perform better among a wide-ranging set of metrics, including greater student engagement in high school. Students who take advanced classes are more likely to graduate from college on time compared to their peers.
In addition, the Colorado Department of Education finds that 40 percent of Colorado students who enroll in college are not prepared for college level classes. More advanced coursework could help change that.
Perhaps the biggest benefit for low-income, minority students is the confidence boost.
When Medrano got to high school, she noticed she was the only student of color in her advanced English class. She always compared herself to the white kids. As she struggled to relate to them, she started to notice disparities. They got support from home, while her parents, who didn’t speak English, didn’t know how to help her study or write an essay.
Medrano covered up her discomfort by acting tough.
Sometimes, she’d smoke marijuana before class “just avoid all those emotions of awkwardness and uncomfortableness and not have to lean into those feelings and face those fears that I had.”
She felt like she had two identities: being Latina and being smart. The two, however, seemed so separate.
“I feel that other people think it’s not common for students of color to be intelligent,” she said. “I think it’s when you’re both, you don’t really fit in and other people don’t really see you that way.”
That began to change for her after a trip to Mexico to visit her older cousins. They were in college, pushing through all the hardship.
“It kind of gave me a perspective of like, ‘Why am I not working that hard,’” she said, when her parents sacrificed so much. Then she discovered Public Achievement, a program based at the University of Colorado Boulder that empowers young people through organizing and civic participation. It was founded in 1990 by Harry Boyte, a field secretary for Martin Luther King, Jr.
CU Undergraduates serve as coaches for K-12 students from Boulder and Lafayette. The students pick a topic such as immigration, bullying, or body shaming and work with their mentors on research and activism on the subject.
“It’s really about working with young people who oftentimes face marginalization in their lives,” said Charla Agnoletti, director of Public Achievement at CU Boulder. She said it helps students not just develop academic skills, but “the skills of your own voice and power to be critical thinkers about the world around you in order to be part of making change.”
That can help counteract the sense of powerlessness many young people feel — and help them tap into motivation to keep going. “When we give students the space and the stage to be powerful and actors of change, they rise to the occasion,” Agnoletti said.
It can also give them a community to commiserate about similar challenges and find solutions. Medrano remembers one day, her mentor, a first-generation college attendee and student of color, asked Medrano and her friends to share their experiences as students of color in predominantly white classrooms.
They shared comments they’d heard like ‘You do this pretty well for English being your second language, or ‘You sure you don’t need help? This is an advanced class.’ Medrano shared how awkward and uncomfortable she felt to be the only minority student in AP Government.
“It was an ‘ah-ha’ moment,” she remembers. Medrano realized that other kids were experiencing what she was just learning the words to describe. The end result was a mission to dig into why students of color weren’t in advanced classes.
They sent out surveys, spoke to classes and teachers, attended staff meetings and researched the statistics. They found out Centaurus’ 186-student International Baccalaureate program has just 25 students of color. There are also barriers to advanced classes, like the costs for AP tests, poorly translated information for Spanish speaking parents and the ways teachers might overlook students of color.
“How do we oftentimes look through cultural lenses that don’t allow us to see the brilliance and intelligence of young people of color in the same ways that we might with young white students?” said Agnoletti.
In Medrano’s junior year, she and her teammates decided to turn that information into action: They all enrolled in Centaurus’ IB program. Only one dropped out and 16 new students had enrolled by mid-year.
Medrano’s team also made sure Spanish-speaking families knew about school events and offered families translation during parent/teacher conferences and offered workshops in Spanish on school courses.
Today, Medrano is one of six students of color in an IB Theory of Knowledge class, where students reflect on the nature of knowledge and how people know what they claim to know. Academically, Medrano said, it’s tough. Sometimes she feels she doesn’t have the same cultural background the white students do. Occasionally, she gets “a feeling like you don’t belong and feeling like all eyes are on you. You have to prove that you were worthy enough of being in that classroom and sitting with the overachieving students.”
But she loves the class. She feels more comfortable with even six kids of color in class. She said she couldn’t have finished the IB program without her crew. They supported and encouraged one another all along the way.
And that has led to bigger wins, too: She’s a Public Achievement coach now, to younger students, she gave a TED-style talk about her experience, and she will attend CU Boulder in the fall.
When she has doubts, she tells herself: “I am capable. I am enough and soon enough proving to myself that yeah, I am and I don’t need others to tell me that.”