Since its inception two years ago, the nonprofit National Education Equity Lab has enrolled 3,000 students from roughly 80 low-income high schools across 35 U.S. cities in courses taught by professors at Harvard, Yale, Howard, and Cornell. The high schoolers follow the same course material as the college students enrolled in the classes, with the opportunity to receive college credit.
At Broward County's Miramar High School, 47 students are taking "Psychology and the Good Life," a popular course offered by Yale. The psychology class and a Harvard course, "Poetry in America: The City From Whitman to Hip-Hop," are now available for Broward students at each of the district's Title I high schools, generally defined as those where a large portion of the student population lives in poverty.
Superintendent Robert Runcie hopes students who enroll in the courses will be encouraged to apply to and attend college.
"For many kids, especially those that might be first-generation in their family considering post-secondary opportunity, the ability for them to take a college course and be successful at it gives them enormous degrees of competence and exposure," Runcie tells New Times.
The district's partnership with the Equity Lab is an experiment that aims to reimagine elite-college admissions and demonstrate to top-tier universities that students from lower-income backgrounds can excel at their institutions.
"We believe that talent is evenly distributed in this country, and that opportunity is not," says Leslie Cornfeld, founder and CEO of the Equity Lab. "This is an effort to really expand access and opportunity in zip codes where that is far too infrequent."
Cornfeld, a graduate of Broward County Public Schools, most recently served in the Obama administration as a special adviser to the U.S. Secretary of Education. In that role, she says, she heard from countless teachers and principals at schools in low-income areas that many of their talented students didn't have the confidence to apply to competitive colleges.
"I would hear time and time again from students that, despite their talent and smarts, they didn't think of themselves as college-worthy or really ready," Cornfeld says. "On the other side, we would talk to university presidents and provosts and they would say, 'We can't find top talent in these zip codes.' So [the Equity Lab] was a strategy to connect the dots."
Unlike other college-level classes offered to high schoolers, such as Advanced Placement courses, those offered through the Equity Lab allow students to receive college credit if they receive a grade of C or above. Students in AP classes typically do not receive college credit unless they pass the course's end-of-year exam, but critics point out that standardized assessments like the AP exam have perpetuated inequality within the nation's education system.
"There's a lot of cultural biases that got into those standardized tests," says Miramar High School Principal Maria Formosa. "A standardized test, we have to do — it is a state requirement — but I am in no way looking at those assessments and saying my kids can perform better or not because of these assessments."
At Miramar High School, where 98 percent of the student population is nonwhite and 80 percent receives free or reduced-price lunch, Formosa says, offering courses from the Equity Lab was a no-brainer.
"For me, that was really important because I have amazing, gifted students that don't always meet those traditional measurements of what [the education establishment] feels make kids ready for college," Formosa says. "I don't think a standardized test should dictate the courses that my students take — it's really an equity issue."
Miramar student Marjorie Urbaez Herrera, for instance, says she felt discouraged after failing the AP exam for her AP Research class. Participating in the psychology course through the Equity Lab helped her prove to herself that she does have the ability to be successful and go on to college.
"These courses taught me that even though I failed, there is a future of me going to college," Urbaez Herrera tells New Times. "This doesn't determine whether I'm smart or whether I'm dumb."
Another student, Sherly Gonzalez, says her participation in Harvard's poetry course opened up opportunities outside of the classroom, including a spot in the National Education Equity Council. (Schools participating in the program each nominate one student to serve as a representative on the council, which provides feedback on the courses.)
"It has really opened my eyes into this new world and brings new perspectives and ideas into what I can implement in my life," Gonzalez says.
As part of the district's commitment to preparing students for life after graduation, superintendent Runcie specifically wanted to offer the Yale psychology course, hoping it would allow Broward high schoolers to receive college credit while also providing a foundation for their social-emotional learning. He says he hopes educational leaders will begin to look beyond reading and mathematical skills to other measures of student success, including social, emotional, and mental-health components.
"The best gift we can give our students is the ability to meet all of the challenges and stresses that they will run into in life, so I believe that's actually foundational for academic and life success," the superintendent says.
Miramar student Lynn Domond says she connects on a different level to her Equity Lab psychology course, where she's learning about the importance of mental health and discovering what really brings her happiness, compared to her AP classes, where she finds herself focusing solely on her grades.
"I really care about my grades, and [through the psychology course], I always know that it's gonna be temporary happiness," Domond says. "Even if I don't get the grade I really wanted, my feeling of being sad and angry is only temporary. [Grades are] not what makes me happy, but the way I'm thinking is really what makes me happy. It's really eye-opening."
While the psychology class is taught by renowned Yale professor Laurie Santos, Miramar teacher Tonya Davis helps facilitate the instruction to ensure the class runs smoothly. Davis, who also leads the school's criminal justice program, says the class is positively impacting her students beyond the classroom, especially with stressors resulting from the pandemic and the racial reckoning of last summer after George Floyd's death.
"Now, they're getting an understanding of what truly makes them happy," Davis says. "I see more smiles on their faces every day because of these courses. It's making them understand themselves better."
Formosa, the school's principal, believes the courses are empowering her students to realize their potential.
"I understand the struggle that comes with being a foreigner and first-generation student, so sometimes our kids just have to hear, 'You're capable of this,'" Formosa says. "The message we send our kids is, 'You are going to college, and you are capable of doing this.'"
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