On a recent Saturday morning, Santa Fe High School junior Lileigh Thomas was in a classroom, along with about 25 other students, preparing to take an exam.

“It’s students who want to go to college,” Thomas said, explaining why they had gathered to work on the weekend. They were all in Santa Fe High teacher Carlos Caldwell’s Advanced Placement European history class, taking a practice AP test to help increase their chances of passing the real thing a few days later.

Not far away that same day, at Java Joe’s on Rodeo Road, Santa Fe High teacher Chris Eadie, coordinator of the school’s AP program, was working with about a half-dozen high-schoolers in a review session to help them prepare for their AP psychology exam. The test wasn’t a final exam for the course but an additional high-stakes test that can count as college credit — saving time and money down the line.

“If you want to show colleges that you are willing to work for extra credit, you have to do this,” said student Ariel Gonzales.

The growing AP programs at both Capital High School and Santa Fe High are bright spots in a district struggling to close an achievement gap for low-income and minority students. Between 2011 and 2015, enrollment in the college-level classes grew more than 43 percent, to 1,377 from 960. The schools also saw an increase in the rate of students who passed their AP exams. Because of this growth, as well as efforts to increase the diversity of students enrolled in AP courses, the Santa Fe school district earned a spot on the 2015 AP District Honor Roll of the New York-based College Board, a century-old nonprofit that developed and administers AP tests.

Earlier this month, hundreds of kids at Capital and Santa Fe High took the optional AP exams — including a large number of Hispanic students.

“Right now, if you talk about the AP program at Capital High, you are talking 99 percent Hispanic,” said teacher Laura Carthy.

It’s a far cry from the mid-1990s, when Carthy would walk by AP classrooms and see small numbers of Anglo students who had been recommended for the program by their teachers. “It didn’t make the school look good,” she said. “In essence, we were segregated.”

Educators at both schools cite similar reasons for the rise in participation in recent years: allowing younger students to enroll, expanding the number of courses offered and marketing the idea that any student can and should take at least one AP class.

The schools also linked the AP classes with other successful college-prep programs, such as Advancement Via Individual Determination, better known as AVID, which focuses on students from demographic groups that are underrepresented in higher education.

And teachers worked to ensure that the costs of the AP exams — which aren’t required for high school class credit but can earn college credits — didn’t deter any student from taking them.

Educators at both Capital and Santa Fe High have raised money to cover the College Board’s exam fees for low-income students. The fee for each test, at $92, is lot of money for a financially struggling family, said Capital High student Selma Gutierrez. “I wouldn’t be able to afford it if it was $92.”

Many students — including Gutierrez — said they paid between $3 and $10 per test this year, thanks to the efforts of their teachers.

When Capital High Principal Channell Wilson-Segura attended the school as a student in the 1990s, no one pushed her to take an AP class. “That was never a conversation that we had,” she said. And the AP offerings, she said, “were sparse.”

She and Carthy said school leaders slowly began building up the AP program at Capital High in 2007, adding one or two courses each year since. “We started a huge push for AP,” Wilson-Segura said. “It’s one of the best measures we have of growth and proficiency.”

Now, instead of requiring students to get teacher recommendations for the courses, the program has an “open enrollment, and the AP kids like it and tell their friends about it,” Carthy said.

Santa Fe High had more of a head start. When Eadie came on board in 1997-98, he said, the school offered about seven AP classes to juniors and seniors. But there was a lot of room for growth. “No sophomore could take AP, no freshman,” he said. “And we didn’t offer any AP electives, except psychology.”

Gutierrez took four AP courses this year. She said it’s not too much, and she likes pushing herself.

Eadie is one AP advocate who is encouraging more kids in AP classes to take the optional tests to try to earn college credit, despite the fees and the added anxiety. He’s also one of the many AP instructors who put in extra time to help prepare their students for the exams.

“To colleges, when you take an AP class, that’s one thing, that’s great,” Eadie said. But if you pass the exam, “then you are showing that university your dedication, your follow through, your knowledge.”

Santa Fe High student Miranda Gallegos has tackled seven AP classes in two years, “mostly for college credit,” she said, citing savings in tuition costs when she earns a passing score — and so far, she said, she’s passed all of her AP exams.

At Santa Fe High, 69 percent of students in AP classes passed at least one exam last year, and students earned passing scores on 63 percent of all tests taken at the school.

Capital High students aren’t faring quite as well on the tests, but they are quickly making gains. The 28 percent of students who passed the AP literature and composition exam last year marked a big jump from the 1 percent who passed the test the year before. Students made similar gains in AP U.S. government. And 85 percent of Capital High students who took the AP Spanish and culture exam earned a passing score last year.

Nationwide, some 2.5 million students take almost 4.5 million AP exams each year in over 35 subject areas, ranging from calculus to music theory to government and politics. For some students, AP is the saving grace of high school, allowing them to challenge themselves and get a taste of what college will be like. For others, it is a stress-building desire to prove to college administrators that they have the stuff it takes to be accepted.

Albuquerque native and The University of New Mexico graduate Brandon Key, a proponent of the program, credits the AP classes he took in high school for his success in college. They also helped him earn 45 credits, allowing him to enter the university as a sophomore. At about $240 per credit hour in tuition, he figures he saved about $11,000.

“I got two degrees in four years, and most people have trouble getting one degree in five years,” said Key, who graduated this spring.

But critics contend there’s no real data to prove students who take AP courses fare better in college. Some also point out that not all colleges accept AP credit. While Santa Fe Community College, UNM and New Mexico State University accept almost all AP exams, Harvard University accepts 24 and Stanford University accepts just 15.

Some Santa Fe students in AP classes said they weren’t motivated by college credit — they just wanted to push themselves.

“I take AP classes mostly because I want to challenge myself,” said Capital High senior Selina Fernández. “… It does prepare me mentally for what I am going to be doing next year in college.”

Gutierrez said the classes come with a load of extra homework — about two hours more per night. And they can be difficult. She said she has seen some students drop AP classes because they’re so rigorous.

“It does lead to an extended sense of stress,” Santa Fe High’s Caldwell said. “But I tell them that when they get to college, that it’s going to be the same thing.”

Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com.