Some of the toughest classes in high school — Advanced Placement courses — are usually filled mostly by white and Asian students. But not at Columbia Heights High School.

A conscious effort to draw more black, Latino and American Indian students into the school's most advanced classes is bearing fruit.

This spring, the district captured a College Board AP District of the Year award. Columbia Heights had the largest growth for its size in the U.S. and Canada in access to AP classes among diverse student populations and in performance, said Trevor Packer, senior vice president for the College Board's AP program.

The school's recognition comes at a time when AP involvement is skyrocketing and pressure is mounting for more students to join the ranks of the college-bound high-achievers. The number of students participating in AP classes in Minnesota continues to climb, more than doubling over the past 10 years, from almost 19,000 in 2005 to nearly 43,000 in 2015, according to the College Board.

There are those who oppose expanding the roster in AP classes. They say schools are pressing students who aren't ready into a school's most advanced classes. But at Columbia Heights, as the number of students of color taking classes has grown, scores have risen.

Teachers and administrators at Columbia Heights High said they started opening access to AP classes three years ago, by recruiting bright students who may not always ace the AP exam.

Theirs is a formula of encouragement, and the knowledge that students gain confidence and skills from AP, regardless of their final scores. Teachers organize study sessions while working around student schedules, including summer boot camp.

Once students get past the anxiety, the benefits of enrolling in AP are no-brainers: Students who earn a score of 3 or higher (out of 5) on AP exams have chances to get college credit. Higher scorers typically make higher GPAs in college and are more likely to graduate within five years, the College Board reported.

AP enrollment boosts confidence for students, especially for those who have never had a family member go to college, said Erin Edwardson Stern, who teaches AP U.S. history.

"The reward … is to see our kids really step out of their comfort zone," said Dan Wrobleski, Columbia Heights High School principal.

AP and its challenges

The school's small size — 860 students — is an advantage, Wrobleski said. Initiatives like interventions or support systems for kids can be implemented quickly, he said.

Columbia Heights offers 12 AP courses, said Zena Stenvik, the district's interim director of teaching and learning.

The school's AP performance is matching its demographics: 40 percent of students are black and almost 30 percent are Hispanic. In 2011, 41 percent of total AP students had scores of 3 or higher. In 2015, that number hit 49 percent.

Within the AP program, 47 percent or more of students are American Indian, black or Hispanic/Latino, and 67 percent or more qualify for subsidized lunches, according to a district release.

The College Board reported that in 2013, black students were the most underrepresented in AP classrooms. Just 9 percent of them took the AP exam that year, compared with 11 percent of Asian students, 19 percent of Hispanic/Latino students and 56 percent of white students.

Opening access comes with challenges and some national criticism. A Fordham Institute report in 2009 found that some teachers were concerned that students "overestimate their abilities and are in over their heads." Other critics have cited the enormous pressure AP puts on students.

Schools that want to open AP access need to make sure that they offer the classes in earlier grades to prepare students, said Chester Finn, a fellow and president emeritus at the Fordham Institute, based in Washington, D.C.

'Living up to our ideals'

Other metro-area districts that have seen success in opening access were also recognized by the College Board this year, including Minneapolis, Shakopee and Anoka-Hennepin schools. In Anoka-Hennepin, the district has removed prerequisites for classes and makes sure students know the expectations before enrolling in rigorous courses, associate superintendent for high schools Jeff McGonigal said.

On a recent afternoon, students in Edwardson Stern's class were debating the ideals embedded in the Declaration of Independence. Did they still hold true today?

"There's been change," said junior William Cooke, who cited examples. "But regardless, it doesn't mean everything's perfect yet."

Junior Marcos Ferreira jumped in. "William, the fact that you know this is good," he said. "This is our progress. This is us living up to our ideals."

During his freshman year, Clifton Lovaloy was the only African-American called for an academic award. Through his high school career, he saw the number of minority students in his AP classes grow, he said.

"It's really refreshing to see new faces in AP classes," he said.

Beena Raghavendran • 612-673-4569