NouJee Lor has her sights set on a career in biology — she hopes through studies at the University of Minnesota — and that means the St. Paul high school student is on the lookout for big news in July.

That's when she gets the results of an exam she recently took in AP (Advanced Placement) biology and learns whether she did well enough to earn college credits.

"I'm pretty nervous about it," said Lor, who will be entering her senior year at Washington Technology Magnet School.

For students of color, the ability to start early on their postsecondary education through dual credit courses has proved valuable, and data from the state Department of Education show participation rates soaring statewide for nearly every demographic group between the 2009-10 and 2015-16 school years.

"People will ask, 'Why should I care?' " said Joe Nathan, director of the St. Paul-based Center for School Change. "It matters because it changes how students think of themselves. They realize, 'I can do college work.' And that's absolutely critical."

In a meeting convened this month by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, dual credit courses were cited as a way to help the state move toward a goal of increasing the percentage of Minnesotans between the ages of 25 and 44 who have earned a postsecondary certificate or degree from 61 percent to 70 percent by 2025.

Still, in some districts and high schools, there are sizable gaps between the percentage of students of color in their student bodies and the percentage who take dual credit courses — differences that inspired a study this past school year by students and staff members in the St. Paul School District.

The report presented in May by the Student Engagement and Advancement Board showed that white students were far more likely to be enrolled in AP and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs districtwide than students of color, and that the gaps were fairly steady in the four years between 2013-14 and 2016-17.

At the Star Tribune's request, the state Department of Education provided school-level data for not only AP and IB, but also CIS and Post Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) participation. It showed that while Como Park Senior High, which prides itself on having St. Paul's most comprehensive AP program, is about 80 percent minority, less than half of the students who participated in its AP, CIS and PSEO programs in 2016-17 were students of color.

In Anoka County, Columbia Heights High School has a student body that is about 80 percent minority, too, but it has achieved greater success in placing students of color in its advanced classes. There, students of color represent 82 percent of students who took advantage of the school's AP, CIS and PSEO offerings.

Rajni Schulz, a member of the St. Paul student group who will be a senior next year at Central High, sees disparities at her school, too.

"I take mostly IB courses, and having the academic challenges that come along with this helps me to stay interested in school," she said recently. "My classes that are not IB — math, for example — are considerably more diverse than my IB courses."

The district says it is committed to closing the gaps, and school board members say one vehicle to make it happen could be the district's new strategic plan.

Seeking to improve

In 1988, Minnesota became a school choice pioneer by passing an open enrollment law that gave parents broad discretion over where they could send their children. A more limited option already was in place, however, that being PSEO, which allows high school juniors and seniors to attend college at no cost to them.

Nathan advocated for passage of PSEO, and was at the State Capitol again this spring seeking to expand the number of students receiving help with their transportation costs.

State Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, the bill's author, noted then that PSEO and CIS helped boost the fortunes of low-income students. According to one study, she said, 93 percent of low-income kids who took at least one advanced course graduated in four years, compared with 62 percent of low-income students overall.

Testifying, too, was Aaliyah Hodge, who graduated high school with 58 college credits through PSEO, and now heads a nonprofit group, People for PSEO.

In an interview last week, Nathan described the current state of dual credit courses as "simultaneously disturbing and encouraging" — disturbing in that there remain "significant gaps" in some programs, but encouraging in that "there is a lot of progress and the gap is closing rapidly," he said.

One-on-one counseling, including learning what students are interested in and feel they are good at, was cited as pivotal by Nathan and others.

At Washington Technology Magnet, Lor recalled counselor Jody Mathiowetz looking over her courses during sophomore year and advising her to challenge herself.

"And that's what I did," Lor said.

She and her classmates took their AP exams on May 14. But teacher Karen Casper continued to engage them.

"The beauty of the month after the test is that we can just explore," Casper told a visitor the day before the end of school.

Off they went into a wooded hillside to document when plants and trees flowered or distributed their seeds. Lor, at the teacher's request, took it all down on a clipboard, and added to it an accounting of the various invasive species they encountered.

"This is buckthorn," Casper told the students. "It's taking over our forests. You can repeat after me, "Buckthorn, buckthorn, buckthorn, buckthorn."

Lor praised her teacher, saying that even though as a student she struggled at times in the advanced class, or was not fired up for the 7:25 a.m. start, Casper kept the class inspired. And as for the exam — and the all-important college credits?

"I think we covered it pretty well in class," Lor said.

Staff Writer MaryJo Webster contributed to this report.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109