As part of the effort to close the achievement gap between white and minority students, educators across the state are trying to get more minority students into Advanced Placement classes.
In teams of two, seventh graders at St. Cloud's South Junior High count in whispers during their honors science class, carefully recording how many drops of water they can fit on their pennies.
They're learning how to collect "qualitative data" about the penny.
"We have a 1984 penny with a rusted brown color and it's very old and it's mostly zinc. And it's (got) a little bit of copper in it," one student says.
"How do you know it's mostly zinc?" asks the teacher.
"I did research."
This is the first year that South Junior High School is offering honors classes. Engaging junior high students is part of a larger plan to prepare and recruit more diverse students into Advanced Placement, or AP, classes.
Stacie Vos, vice principal at St. Cloud Technical High School, said three years ago AP enrollment numbers for minority students didn't look right.
"We realized that the numbers were very small in comparison to the numbers of our actual population and that number correlation in our AP courses," she said.
A quarter of the district's nearly 9,500 students are non-white.
The district is seeing signs of success in some student populations. For instance, the number of blacks and Hispanics enrolled in AP classes has tripled in three years.
In 2007-08, a total of 526 students enrolled in AP classes. Approximately 10 percent of those students were non-white.
In 2010-11, 694 students enrolled in AP classes, with the number of non-white students growing to nearly 14 percent.
Still, honors and AP classes still do not reflect the proportion of minority students enrolled in the district.
Stephanie Peterson, secondary academic achievement coordinator for the St. Cloud school district, said the honors classes at the junior high level do not have as many minority students enrolled as she had hoped.
"Information was sent out to all those families, but I need to do better job of utilizing the resources within our district to make those families understand that it's priority, that it's important that they encourage their students to participate," she said.
Next year, Peterson and other administrators plan to beef up their recruitment. Among other things, they're going to take a closer look at data from tests to identify high-performing minority students.
It's a strategy endorsed by state Education Commissioner Alice Seagren.
"I believe that there is, maybe, unintentional lower expectations for students of color," Seagren said. "And when they get these (test) results, they discover that there are students with wonderful ability and they need to be encouraged to take some courses."
For its part, the state offers grants to prepare teachers for the kind of pre-AP strategies St. Cloud and other districts are teaching in classes in order to get younger students on the Advanced Placement path. The state also makes AP exams free to low-income students.
Seagren and other St. Cloud educators say test scores don't paint the whole picture. They say teachers play an important role in recruiting students who do well in course work, but may not necessarily score high in assessment tests.
An informal survey of St. Cloud Technical High School students taking their first AP classes suggests teachers and counselors haven't been the prime motivators.
"I thought I should expect more of myself in subjects that I like," said Israel Roemer, a Hispanic student in his junior year at St. Cloud Technical High School. He takes AP history and AP psychology classes.
St. Cloud administrators say the key to hooking younger students might be getting the word out to their families and peers.
While their foundational work today won't yield instant results, they do expect their efforts will pay off with exponential growth in AP enrollment each year.