By Tom Lietz, Associate Director for Training and Development

During my eight years as a principal at Utica High school and for the seven years before at the UAIS and Heritage Jr. High, I was a staunch advocate for student voice. The UAIS benefited from a self-selection bias that led to an extremely diverse population. My journey during the eight years at Utica High was both enlightening and challenging. A concerning pattern emerged: students of color and other underrepresented groups were consistently under-enrolled in Advanced Placement courses. This discrepancy not only highlighted a gap in opportunity but also a call to action to ensure equity and inclusion in our educational offerings. To address this, we partnered with Equal Opportunity Schools (EOS) and integrated Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) strategies to foster a more inclusive and supportive learning environment.

Bridging the Gaps

EOS was instrumental in identifying and breaking down barriers to AP course access. By leveraging data and insights into student-teacher relationships, EOS helps us understand the nuances behind the underrepresentation. Through that partnership, we developed targeted strategies to encourage student agency, ensuring that every student, regardless of background, felt empowered to enroll in AP courses. This approach not only increased the diversity of our AP classrooms but also reinforced the importance of listening to our students and valuing their aspirations. EOS is not free, but the work that EOS empowered could be done with a spreadsheet and a Google form. A simple process of understanding why students didn’t feel capable, welcome, supported or just didn’t take the leap combined with identification of trusted adults is a powerful formula for change!

Scaffolding Student Strengths and Agency

Recognizing the aspiration to enroll in AP courses is only the first step; providing the necessary support was crucial for student success. AVID's structured, college-readiness system filled this gap perfectly. From one elective course per level, Utica High made AVID’s strategies its Tier 1 supports for all learning. It equips students with the skills needed to succeed in rigorous academic settings, focusing on (WICOR) writing, inquiry, collaboration, organization, and reading. AVID’s strategies are particularly beneficial for students who are first-gen college-bound students, of which Utica High had many, offering them a tangible pathway to academic and future career success.

Honoring Student Voice and Creating Access

The synergy between EOS and AVID was transformative. By combining EOS’s strategic approach to identifying and eliminating barriers with AVID’s comprehensive support system, we created a robust framework that not only honors student voice but actively responds to it. We saw every identified underrepresented group begin to catch the control numbers and we saw those numbers continue to rise. Students were more than just participants in their education; they became drivers of their academic journey, informing us on where they should be and who could make that journey successful. They finally had the confidence to pursue challenging courses and the support to succeed in them.

This initiative is a testament to what can be achieved when a school commits to listening to their students and taking action to dismantle barriers. It underscores the importance of partnerships like those with EOS and AVID in supporting equitable opportunities for all students. As we moved forward, our focus remained steadfast on nurturing an environment where every student, regardless of their background, has access to the courses that would ensure they had opportunities for post-secondary learning and beyond.