Six years ago as a sixth-grader, Elijah Stende began to map out his future, and it involved attending college and becoming a nurse someday.

Fortunately, he was in the right school to help put him on that path.

Open World Learning Community in St. Paul makes it a practice to remove barriers to student participation in rigorous dual credit classes. Anyone can take its AP (Advanced Placement) courses, and they are encouraged to do so, with a potential payoff being the awarding of college credits following a successful final exam.

The grades 6-12 school was one of three in Minnesota to be recognized last year for not only having a high percentage of exam takers, but also for attracting students of color and those from families with lower incomes in numbers that mirror the school's overall demographics. Now, the goal of increasing access for underrepresented students is drawing bipartisan support at the State Capitol.

State Rep. Matt Norris, DFL-Blaine, is sponsoring a bill promoted by the education advocacy group EdAllies that would automatically enroll into advanced courses those students who demonstrate proficiency in a subject area via a strong standardized test score or an earlier course grade, for example.

Students could decline to be part of what is now being pitched as a pilot project.

"I think the goal of this bill is fantastic," state Rep. Ben Bakeberg, R-Jordan, said during a recent House committee hearing. "Giving as many students access, and pushing kids, is a phenomenal goal."

In his presentation, Norris cited data reported recently by the state Department of Education showing that participation in AP courses declined by 20% for students overall between 2019-20 and 2021-22, and 41% for low-income students. For students of color, participation dropped by 15%.

EdAllies works closely with underrepresented communities, and it is using as a blueprint the academic acceleration policies of states like Washington. There, more than 70 school districts turned to automatic enrollment as part of a statewide grant program. Tacoma Public Schools saw participation in advanced classes more than double, Norris said, and for students of color, the enrollment tripled — from 20% to 60%.

More students in Tacoma ended up passing their exams, and increases were reported, too, in the numbers of students graduating and enrolling in post-secondary classes, he added.

His bill now is undergoing revisions, with a key question to be answered: What kinds of supports should be provided to students participating in the pilot program? State Rep. Cheryl Youakim, DFL-Hopkins, said many of them could be taking their first AP course, and may need tutoring.

"The last thing we'd want to do is auto-enroll a child who doesn't have the supports, have them fail and have them not want to try ever again," she said.

Helping more students set big goals

Stende, who now is a senior at Open World Learning and has earned college credits, said he knew of the legislation and applauded efforts to expose more diverse students to rigorous coursework.

In too many schools, he said, "it feels like only a 'posh circle' can get into those classes. The rest of the people are kind of left out if you don't know what an AP class is or you don't know you have the opportunity to take it." Stende, who is Black, created a video last year about his school's inclusive approach.

Ten years ago, Open World Learning moved away from offering its advanced courses as a separate track. Now, all kids are alerted to their options as part of goal-setting conferences held annually with their parents and teachers, Principal David Gundale said.

Relationships and teamwork are valued.

Students are paired up in AP courses and told to exchange phone numbers or social media addresses to help one another outside of class. Last week, students moved about teacher Kent Miller's main-floor classroom offering gallery-style critiques of their classmates' artwork.

The course, AP-Visual Art, is new to the school this year, Miller said.

It came about at the urging of a student who is Black.