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ENSURING EQUITY AND ACCESS: Civil Rights Investigation of New Jersey School District Leads to Agreement to Improve African Americans Students’ Access to Advanced Placement and Other Advanced Courses

On October 1, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced new guidance to states, school districts, and schools to ensure that all students have equal access to educational resources, such as effective teaching, challenging course work, access to technology, and safe school facilities. Included in the guidance, which took the form of a Dear Colleague letter, was information on how the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) could investigate and act when it discovers disparities in resources.

“Today’s guidance … will put important tools in the hands of schools and communities and school districts and states to ensure that all young people receive what they need and deserve,” Duncan said during an October 1 speech at the at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, Tri-Caucus Plenary Session. “We will be a partner in that effort and we will be a watchdog. Because we are serious about increasing education success and attainment for all students, we must also be serious about increasing equitable access to opportunity and ending the tired, decades-long practice of offering students of color, less than what we offer to other students.”

A few weeks after Duncan’s announcement, OCR announced an agreement on October 28 with the School District of South Orange & Maplewood (New Jersey) to provide African American students with better access to Advanced Placement (AP) and other higher-level learning opportunities.

The announcement comes after an OCR investigation that began in May 2013 revealed that the school district’s approximately 2,500 African American students are significantly underrepresented in advanced and higher-level learning opportunities in the district’s elementary, middle, and high schools. According to a press release from ED, African American students occupied only 18.7 percent of the spots in the district’s AP courses even though they accounted for 51.5 percent of the district’s high school enrollment.

As part of the agreement, the district will take several actions to increase African American students’ access to its college- and career-preparatory programs, including greater student, parent, and community outreach about the available courses and programs; improvements to academic counseling services at the middle and high school levels; and training for relevant district and school site administrators and personnel.

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