For some students, being at the top of their class isn’t enough.

Aniyah Parker-Ricketts was this year’s valedictorian at Wilby High School in Waterbury. Her GPA was perfect in her first two years. But none of her high school counselors asked whether she would be interested in taking honors or Advanced Placement courses. She had to initiate the conversation, she said. 

She and her two best friends — Jourdelyn ”Lyric” Vargas and Gianni Bonval — were later stuck deciding which AP classes they wanted to take, because several were only offered once a semester, and then they were offered at the same time — so it wasn’t possible for their transcripts to look as competitive as those of students at other schools across Connecticut who are able to load their schedules with AP courses. 

Worse, when the three did get into Advanced Placement classes, they were ill-prepared for the end-of-the-year test that determined whether they got college credit. Throughout the year, the classes often fell behind schedule, and the full curriculum wasn’t covered. 

Aniyah took four AP classes. She didn’t pass any of the tests — her highest score was 2 out of 5 in both AP chemistry and AP literature. Lyric and Gianni, who took three and four AP classes respectively, didn’t pass any of their exams either. Gianni said he scored mostly 1s. Lyric recalled failing her AP history exam in her junior year because she was “so lost.”

All three students are now enrolled at UConn: Aniyah, with a health science major and minor in journalism, Lyric, who’s studying psychology, and Gianni, who’s majoring in mechanical engineering. Two of the three best friends started this summer through the university’s Center for Access & Postsecondary Success to help ease their transition.

Aniyah Parker-Ricketts and Gianni Bonval peer at a poem in the book that Jourdelyn ”Lyric” Vargas (center) published in high school. The trio graduated at the top of their class.

Aniyah, Gianni and Lyric all graduated at the top of their class, with 3.9, 3.85 and 3.8 grade point averages. But it still wasn’t enough for the state to consider them college-ready — and they’re not alone. 

The three best friends are among thousands of students of color in Connecticut who are underserved by the education system, experts say.

In districts like Darien, Weston, New Canaan and Colchester, over 80% of high school students enrolled in a college-readiness course are meeting state benchmarks that can indicate that the student is ready for higher education, according to state data. In other districts, like Waterbury, New Haven and Hartford, that number is no higher than 22.4%. 

But the achievement and opportunity gap in “college-readiness” goes beyond district-to-district or school-to-school comparisons. It’s also more complicated than the issue of funding, though money does play a role. 

It’s often seen within the same building — or even classroom — where Black and Latino students not only don’t have the opportunity to take college-readiness classes, but when they are, they don’t have the right tools or support to succeed, compared to their white and Asian peers.

It’s the story of the two Connecticuts: the one that prepares students for any avenue after high school, or the one where they have to fight to make it through.

Districts have acknowledged the disparities and say they’re working on additional efforts to improve communication with students and their families in addition to expanding their course offerings.

But such unequal educational opportunities are well-documented, notably within the cases of Sheff v. O’Neill in Connecticut and Brown v. Board of Education nationally.

Connecticut still sees students of color overwhelmingly concentrated within urban communities or low-income areas, despite school choice options established through the Sheff lawsuit, but even some of the the most integrated districts in the state, including Vernon, West Hartford and Middletown, struggle with de facto segregation as students of color are often overrepresented in special education, underrepresented in advanced coursework and are subjected to more internal and external educational factors to keep them stuck in a loop of underperformance.

The disparities are seen across the U.S. educational system. In 1998, education researcher Linda Darling-Hammond called the country’s system “one of the most unequal in the industrialized world,” where students “routinely receive dramatically different learning opportunities based on their social status,” in her report titled “Unequal Opportunity: Race and Education.”

“Part of the question in this country with so much discrimination that kids have is, ‘Do I belong? Is this for me? Am I entitled to this? Do people think I’m entitled to this?’ You gotta do a lot of things in a school to make the case — to make it clear — that [college-readiness] is for all kids,” Darling-Hammond told the CT Mirror. “There are lots of signals to students of color that high academic achievement is not viewed as their fate. Even starting as early as elementary school, when your gifted and talented programs are disproportionately white and excluding African American students, those signals are very, very powerful, and we’re fooling ourselves if we don’t think that kids take that in.”

“There was this girl [at our high school], and I’m using her as an example because I didn’t see her in any AP classes or any accelerated classes, and I knew she could,” Gianni said. “She had the brains for it and the grades.

“There’s a population of kids that could be placed into these classes, but they [aren’t], because they don’t know they exist, and they’re not given the push they may need.”

Disparities in access to college-level courses 

Though data about college readiness is made public through the state’s Department of Education, it’s difficult to analyze, as fewer than two dozen school districts across Connecticut had data that wasn’t entirely or partially suppressed for confidentiality reasons due to a low number of Black and Latino students either enrolled in advanced coursework and/or receiving end-of-year scores that would guarantee college credit. 

In 20 districts analyzed, only Hartford, Waterbury and New Haven school districts responded to interview requests regarding the gaps in access and disparities in success rates for Black and Latino students enrolled in college readiness courses. 

Most of the districts with full post-secondary readiness data overwhelmingly educate students of color. But even in those districts, white students occupied the most seats in college-level classes. 

In seven of the state’s 10 districts with the most students of color — Hartford, Bridgeport, East Hartford, New Haven, Waterbury, New London and Meriden — the enrollment rate in advanced classes for white students outpaced the rate of Black and Latino students by up to 20 percentage points.

In districts with more integration, where the student body was almost evenly split between white and nonwhite students, including South Windsor, West Hartford, Bristol, Vernon and Middletown, the combined enrollment gap between white and Black and Latino students in advanced coursework was around 6.7%.

Countless organizations and researchers have analyzed the causes of such disparities across American schools for decades. At one point, a highly controversial report considered genetics as the sole factor of the achievement gap and educational outcomes. It has since been debunked as data instead show that the performance of students of color, particularly in higher-level classes, is a result of factors like systemic or implicit bias, teacher support and expectations, climate and school funding.

“Many Connecticut schools offer a diverse range of AP classes, but based on these numbers, Black and Latino students are being denied access to AP courses,” said Kristen Hengtgen, a senior policy analyst at The Education Trust.

The Trust’s advanced coursework tool, which uses data from 2015-16, shows that in Connecticut, nearly twice as many Black and Latino students would have to be enrolled in AP classes for fair representation.

That’s “the second-lowest out of the 48 states we had data for.”

For the Connecticut Black and Latino students who earn seats in those college-level classes, the gap in receiving college credit was much larger.

In the 20 districts analyzed, white students reached the benchmarks at rates from 15 to 43 percentage points higher than that of Black students. The gaps shrank slightly between white and Latino students at 11 to 39 percentage points. 

For Aniyah, Lyric and Gianni, despite being within the top 10 students of their graduating class, they weren’t part of the 17% of Waterbury students, or the 2.3% at their high school, who reached the state’s college-ready benchmarks.

Several experts said school climate and systemic structures account for why Black and Latino students struggle to get into and succeed in college-readiness classes.

Aniyah Parker-Ricketts, Class of 2023 valedictorian at Wilby High School, delivers her speech at graduation. Waterbury Public Schools / YouTube

School climate

During the recent legislative session, Senate Bill 1 explored the creation of new state school climate standards and explored several new practices for local implementation, an important conversation as students of color now make up 51.4% of children enrolled in K-12, and only 10.6% of educators are people of color.

Representation makes a difference in how Black and Latino children are taught in schools, the relationships they develop with their education, their comfort levels in certain classes and even efforts for higher academic success, educators say. 

“When students feel like they belong in the class, they’re more likely to be academically successful,” Hengtgen said. “We know that when you have teachers who look like you, or have a curriculum that reflects your culture, your community, your lived experiences — these are essential things to ensuring that Black and Latino students have the opportunity to feel like they belong.”

This directly translates into Black and Latino students’ access to college-readiness courses as teachers and counselors of color are more likely to identify and recommend students of color to rigorous coursework, Hengtgen said. 

Aniyah said she had never spoken with her guidance counselor until her junior year, when she went to request AP classes. 

“When my sister was in high school, she was starting off with her AP and honors classes in freshman, sophomore year. And me, I was like, ‘I did so well, and I’m still in these low classes.’ …  I let another year pass, and I was like, ‘Maybe next year, they’ll recommend them for me.’ And I started to think, ‘Am I doing something wrong? Like what am I supposed to do?’” Aniyah said. “I reached out to them, and it was just an all-me type of doing because nobody came to me and was like, ‘Hey, I think you should take X, Y and Z’. I had to go out and get it. … They say the guidance counselors are supposed to bring that information to you and they probably are, but I was also OK with going out and asking for what I need.”

I struggled because, again, even at home, my mother would even put me into that category with troubled kids.

Aniyah Parker-Ricketts

Gianni also had to make the effort, and he did so as soon as he enrolled at the high school.

“It was more or less that my parents already told me that college was the way, and I already knew that these [classes] are getting weighed higher than regular courses,” Gianni said. “So I told my counselors if the option is available to me, to just put me in all the hardest classes. I kind of made that a standard from the jump for my guidance counselor.”

But Lyric had never wanted to go to college. Conversations with a guidance counselor who recommended her to apply, followed by encouragement from her friends and a trip to UConn, changed her mind. 

“I used to tell Gianni I wasn’t built for college, because I used to be like, ‘I’m not smart for that.’ And he used to be like, ‘But you’re disciplined for that.’ … I [realized] it was never about just being smart, because intelligence is built,” Lyric said.

Sometimes just being a Black or Latino student is enough to perpetuate a certain stereotype.

“We knew that we had to separate ourselves from the stigma and the circle that we’re put into,” Aniyah said. “We took on a lot of those opportunities, like being student reps at the Board of Education meetings, presidents of groups and showing our face all the time, making announcements on the speakers, just things like that. … I struggled personally, I struggled because, again, even at home, my mother would even put me into that category with troubled kids, and things of that nature.”

Underrepresentation of Black and Latino students in these courses is a factor, as they can be one of the few students of color in the classroom.

“It’s uncomfortable to be one or two Black kids in a class of white kids, not just uncomfortable, but like it feels really risky and really vulnerable in that position. AP [and DE] courses in particular take a very deep level of engagement, and if it doesn’t feel safe to engage, it doesn’t make sense to spend your year doing that,” said Lauren Ruth, Research & Policy Fellow at Connecticut Voices for Children.

System structures 

School climate is something the state has started to work on, but other structures have deeper roots, like academic tracking, which is how most schools in the United States guide a student’s academic career through “perceived ability, IQ or achievement levels.”

“That system was set up in the early 1900s. It was explicitly racially designated. It’s not as explicit now. It’s more implicit, but there are these long standing beliefs and assumptions that continue to guide our schools,” Darling-Hammond said. “What one of those assumptions is that somehow there’s a bell curve on which we all fall at birth, and you can kind of know who has ability and who doesn’t, and that’s what will drive your performance. Yet, what we know from neuroscience now, and from the sciences of learning, is that is not true. What determines where we end up is not our genetic input efforts, it’s the learning experiences we’ve had and the relationships associated.”

City schools tend to offer fewer AP courses, and that’s a reason there are fewer children of color in those seats.

Lauren Ruth, Connecticut Voices for Children.

The types of AP classes offered, and how they were developed, play a role in how Black and Latino children are put at a structural disadvantage within schools and districts, Ruth said.

“City schools tend to offer fewer AP courses, and that’s a reason there are fewer children of color in those seats with fewer referrals [and] fewer classes available in the schools,” Ruth said, adding that the end-of-the-year test is structured for a certain demographic.

“A lot of these tests, AP, the SATs and the ACT, were constructed originally using a certain population of young people as a comparison. So because the tests were supposed to predict who would do well in college, they count-backwards engineered them based on who was doing well in college, which were white students,” Ruth said. “Some of the concepts were inaccessible. The language was inaccessible, and the content was inaccessible.”

Outside factors like “systemic neighborhood features” can also stop a student from being recruited into these classes.

“Black children are twice as likely as white children to be chronically absent, and chronic absenteeism is often talked about by legislators the same as truancy, but it’s actually pretty qualitatively different. With truancy, you get kids skipping class. … But chronic absenteeism is when kids are missing full school days and significant amounts,” Ruth said. “It’s not kids joyriding in cars. It’s kids who have chronic illnesses like asthma, or panic attacks or extreme emotional needs. It’s kids whose families are homeless. It’s kids who really feel unsafe in school. It’s kids who have been bullied. It’s kids in neighborhoods where walking to school is associated with the risk of gun violence. Chronic absenteeism seems to be more explained by systemic neighborhood features than it is by individual kids.”

Looking to the future

In New Haven, access to higher-level classes begins with eighth-grade teachers’ recommendations. Dina Natalino, the supervisor of College & Career Pathways at New Haven Public Schools, said middle school counselors create freshman schedules. At the high school, enrollment for honors, AP or DE (dual enrollment) classes is also mainly done through teacher recommendations. 

In Waterbury and Hartford, recruitment efforts are a mix of recommendations and open enrollment, where students get course lists to see their options.

Representatives from the three school districts who responded for this story, however, acknowledged the need to establish an improved collaborative effort to bring Black and Latino students into college-level classes. They all said initial changes need to start with better outreach and communication.

We need to make sure we’re identifying students much earlier than when they get to high school.

Dina Natalino, New Haven Public Schools

“The reality is that we need to make sure we’re identifying students much earlier than when they get to high school. I’m really working more to have our middle school counselors have greater collaboration with our high school counselors so kids are getting identified and targeted early on like this is the kid that needs a push,” Natalino said. “We also need to expand where students should be able to say, ‘I want to take that class whether the teacher thinks that I’m a good fit or not,’ [and] parents should be more involved in conversation.”

Chaka Felder-McEntire, the executive director of Post-Secondary Success and Alternative Programming at Hartford Public Schools, shared similar thinking that families need to be more involved in enrollment conversations.

The districts are analyzing existing course offerings and figuring out how to expand the choices to correspond better with student interests. 

“We have to make sure that we have a balance of students in our classrooms, but also according to the student interest … It’s about making sure that we’re meeting the needs of our kids,” Felder-McEntire said. “Connectedness is a major push in a district right now. We’re trying to make sure that we’re offering what the kids actually want, and what the demand is in our state and in our country in terms of careers and interests.”

Felder-McEntire added that the district has sent 11 teachers this summer to receive AP training from the College Board to help teach new class offerings. 

In New Haven, they’re hoping to eliminate honors English and offer a class called AP Seminar, which would teach students how to better prepare for college-level courses and the resources that are needed to succeed in them. The district also hopes to offer more DE classes, which are actual college classes offered at the high school or at neighboring higher education institutions for both college and high school credit.

In addition to districts’ initial efforts, experts added that college-level classes can become more equitable by shifting from AP into more dual-credit classes.

“AP classes are entirely determined by this one standardized test, which is completely artificial. I’ve gone through undergrad. I also have multiple advanced degrees, and in none of those did I have a single class where the entire grade came down to one test,” said Ruth.

“There are a lot of barriers to being able to send kids out to a community college, take the courses or getting high school teachers certified to be able to teach college courses, but a lot of colleges now post-pandemic are starting to play around with doing online models. That might be an area where we see some openings for more people of color to thrive in college classes while they’re in high school.”

Jessika Harkay is CT Mirror’s Education Reporter, covering the K-12 achievement gap, education funding, curriculum, mental health, school safety, inequity and other education topics. Jessika's experience includes roles as a breaking news reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Hartford Courant. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Baylor University.