If anyone knows the halls and classrooms of Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Eastvale, California, it's Adan Esperza.
He’s been the head custodian at Roosevelt for nine years. Esperza's son and daughter know these halls, too. They're students at the high school — good students. Esperza, who was born in Mexico and didn't finish college, has big ambitions for them.
Earlier this year, he received some unexpected letters from the school.
"They said, 'Congratulations, your kid has been chosen to take AP courses at Roosevelt for next year,'" he says.
Esperza says the Advanced Placement courses students can take for college credit hadn't really been on his radar before then.
"I was actually proud to have two of my kids nominated for the program," he says.
The letters were part of a broader effort by the school district to get more students into AP courses, especially overlooked low-income and minority students who have the skills to succeed.
Esperza has been at the school for many years, walks past AP classes every day and has kids with good grades. And yet, it took a letter from the school letting him know his kids were AP material.
Here’s how Jeremy Goins, the principal at Roosevelt explains that discrepancy:
"What it showed me," he says, "Is, 'wow,' even our own families, we don't necessarily advise them properly all the time. We look past that because our systems are in place, and that's the way it's always been done."
About 3,800 students attend Roosevelt High. About half of them are Hispanic. But when it comes to AP classes, there are more white and Asian students than there are Hispanic and black students. Those groups are under-represented.
"Sometimes, we don't have systems to catch those kids that have a lot of potential, that aren't necessarily in the group of kids that typically take those high-achieving classes," Goins says.
To start catching those kids, Goins' district brought in Equal Opportunity Schools, a non-profit that works with schools to help identify kids who are being left behind in AP and International Baccalaureate programs, and help close the so-called participation gap.
"There are about two-thirds of a million missing students per year, who are low income, African American students, Latino students, who could be successful in AP classes, IB classes — the toughest classes in their school, if given that chance," says Reid Saaris, EOS executive director.
But parents, like Esperza, aren't always aware of AP opportunities. Teachers don't think of some kids as "AP material." And many low-income and minority kids don't see themselves as AP kids.
"They may take a look in an AP class and say, 'That doesn't look like there's anyone who looks like me in there, I don't really belong,'" Saaris says.
EOS uses data to help change those perceptions, without trying to point fingers.
Federal Way school district in Washington increased the number of low-income and minority students taking advanced classes, while keeping exam pass rates stable. (Courtesy of EOS Schools)
"The conversations around race and class and assumptions, aren’t as hard as [you] might expect when you bring data to the table," Saaris says. "Because it can be less about assumptions and more about what the data says."
To get that data at Roosevelt, EOS staff surveyed all the students in the school, about their hopes and ambitions, and about whether they feel challenged in their classes.
They were asked questions about grit and perseverance. Teachers were asked which students they thought could succeed. Then EOS bundled up all that information, along with grades and test scores, and created a profile for each eligible student It looks almost like a baseball card, with a picture and performance stats.
Joelle Carreon is a 10th grade student at Roosevelt. Her card, she says, had five stars, "which meant that five teachers from this campus were encouraging me to take an AP class."
Before he got his card, 11th grader Christian Esplana was already very involved in extracurricular activities. He had good grades and was planning for college, but he had never taken an AP class.
"It felt good knowing that I'm at a level that AP students are," he says. "I have doubted myself before, but now I feel confident."
That's EOS's goal — to build that confidence, because research shows kids who take rigorous courses in high school have a better shot at getting into college, and a better chance of succeeding once they get there.
To get the word out, Roosevelt also held presentations about AP and "AP Rush Days" where potential students could talk to current students about the work load and other questions.
When it came time for registration? Counselor David Sánchez says it all paid off.
"I think because of their awareness, the conversations we're having with them, is much more, 'I've heard of these AP classes, I want to try it, I want to push for it,'" he says.
Next fall at Roosevelt, there will be 700 new spots in AP classes, and a 15 percent increase in the number of Hispanic and black students who registered for AP courses.
And, one of those students will be the daughter of Adan Esperza, the school’s head custodian.