A board member for the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District suggested Monday night that encouraging more minority students to take Advanced Placement (AP) classes would reduce academic rigor and attract students who are not "serious" about doing well in school.
The comments, made by trustee Sanjay Dave, run contrary to district goals and performance data, and teachers have since called Dave's statements "dangerously flawed."
Dave made the comments at the April 16 board meeting during a presentation by the science departments at Mountain View and Los Altos high schools, which made it a top priority to get more minority students to enroll in AP science classes. Dave said he "struggled" with the goal, stating that AP classes are meant for the "most serious students" and is not meant for kids who are under-prepared or have poor study habits.
Dave went on to say that AP classes are not necessary for being successful in college, and implied that teachers would have to sacrifice rigor and lower standards in enrolling more minority students.
"How do you change your AP courses," Dave asked, "to make sure that then you adapt to having more minority students enrolled in AP courses?"
Sarah Hawthorne, science department chair at Mountain View High, told Dave that nothing in the goal implies lowering expectations or standards, and that imbalanced racial demographics in tough AP science classes should not be chalked up to a lack of preparedness. She compared it to having an AP Physics course with significantly fewer girls in the class, which would indicate "something is off" because she knows plenty of female students who would be successful.
It could be, Hawthorne said, that minority students are discouraged from taking AP classes because they would feel isolated, possibly because their friends and students who look like them aren't signing up, or that they aren't enrolling in harder classes because their family came from another country and isn't familiar with the U.S. education system.
"It's certainly not lowering expectations," she said. "It's about creating a culture and the supports, including supervised study periods ... where students who we know could be successful have the opportunity then to be successful."
District teachers have since strongly come out against Dave's comments, arguing that they reflect neither the district's goals nor the views of the teaching staff. In a statement to the Voice Thursday night, District Teacher Association (DTA) president Dave Campbell wrote that Mountain View-Los Altos teachers have a responsibility and a "moral imperative" to promote achievement for all students regardless of ethnic, economic or academic background.
Campbell wrote that teachers are "concerned" about the comments made at the meeting, calling them incongruent with goals laid out by the school board regarding increasing underrepresented students in AP and honors classes. Dave's comments "reflect an assumption, when taken in context, that those very same students do not come to these advanced courses as 'serious' students capable of success," Campbell said.
"This view is not only inaccurate, but it is dangerously flawed," he said.
In an email to the Voice, Dave apologized for his comments, stating that he did not articulate his statements and questions to staff very well. His intent, he said, was to better understand the goals of the science department, particularly in light of parent concerns that students felt pressured to take AP classes as a means to be competitive for college applications.
He said his comments were not meant to convey that he somehow thought less of any of the district's students, which he said is not the case.
"I reviewed the transcript and see that my line of questioning was poorly phrased and didn't reflect my heartfelt belief that we have an obligation to support the success of every student we serve," he said in the email. "I ran for this board to do just that."
The high school district has sought for years to encourage more minority students to enroll in Advanced Placement and honors classes, putting them in a better position for college and academic success. The problem, according to current and former district officials, was that minority students and students from low-income or non-English-speaking backgrounds have the work ethic and the desire to do well in school, but decide against signing up for rigorous classes for one reason or another.
In 2015, the district won recognition from the Santa Clara County Office of Education for reflecting the school's diversity in its AP and honors class enrollment at Mountain View High School -- something former Superintendent Barry Groves called "one of the most incredible accomplishments" of his career. Data at the time showed a huge increase in low-income Latino students enrolling in at least one AP class, and there was no decrease in class performance or percentage of students taking the AP test.
Superintendent Jeff Harding said in an email that AP and honors classes reflect the district's demographics, including ethnicity, socioeconomic status and gender, and that Latino student enrollment in AP classes in particular doubled in recent years. More than 80 percent of these students went on to pass AP tests with a score of 3 or higher.
"We are proud of our students and their teachers for this notable achievement," Harding said.
Former Associate Superintendent Brigitte Sarraf told the Voice that reaching parity in AP classes -- meaning the percentage of Latino and other underrepresented minority students in AP classes matched the rest of the school -- was a proud achievement for the district, particularly given that AP test results remained equally strong.
Instead of lowering standards, Sarraf said, district staff prioritized supporting students with what she called "targeted support" to strengthen study habits and fill any knowledge and skills gaps that students may have.
"Our minority students proved to be equally capable of doing well in AP as their majority counterparts," Sarraf wrote in an email Friday. "By no means did the presence of more minority students in our classes reduce the rigor of the program."
Sarraf said that, as far as she knows, the district hasn't changed course since then. She said AP classes prepare students for success in college and future careers, and that all students should have access to the opportunity to challenge themselves and pursue "excellent, high quality education."
The school went on to receive national recognition, along with 42 schools and districts across the country, for its progress in encouraging low-income students to take AP classes.
Campbell said in the statement that teachers stand behind the comments made by Hawthorne and Los Altos High School science department chair Darren Dressen at the April 16 meeting in response to Dave, and that the DTA expects the board and district administrators to continue supporting success of each student in the district.
"It is our hope that the MVLA board will work to ensure that there is a cohesive vision for the educational experiences and desired outcomes for every student entrusted in our care," Campbell said.