Program boosting AP enrollments to lose funding
Leslie Prudhomme, second from right, teaches an advanced placement biology class at Northampton High School on Wednesday and helps students planning a skit on photosynthesis. From left are senior Stephen Michel and juniors Mara Heng, Kaitlin Travers and Sophie Lelleman.
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Sue Biggs helps Northampton High School sophomores Jack Petrides, left, and Xiaowei Chen with a lab project in her advanced placement chemistry class on Wednesday.
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Sue Biggs prepares her advanced placement chemistry class at Northampton High School for a lab project on Wednesday.
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Northampton High School advanced placement chemistry teacher Sue Biggs helps students with a lab project on Wednesday. From left are Caleigh Darragh, Emily Poehlein, Emily Biggs and Winnie Brown, all sophomores. Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON — Kaitlin Travers didn’t see herself as the type of student who would thrive in Advanced Placement classes at Northampton High School.
But at the urging of her science teacher, she took AP chemistry last year as a sophomore and scored a 4, the second-highest grade on the college-level test.
“That made me want to take more,” said Travers, a junior who’s enrolled in two AP biology classes this year.
Senior Heather Giguere had a similar experience when she signed up for her first AP class in chemistry as a sophomore.
“Most kids who are hesitant think AP is too challenging,” said Giguere, who has since taken several additional AP classes. “But the teachers here are really supportive. It’s actually fun.”
Five years ago, Northampton became one of the first schools in the state to participate in the Massachusetts Math and Science Initiative, a grant-funded program that aims to expand high school enrollments in AP math, science and English. With funding from Exxon Mobil Corp. and the Gates Foundation set to expire this year, the state is preparing a $2 million request for proposals to continue the program, according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The proposal requires $1 million in private matching funds.
Not all schools have signed on to the program.
Concord Academy, a private high school, got rid of all of its AP courses some years ago and replaced them with advanced offerings designed by its teachers because administrators felt the AP classes lacked sufficient depth, according to the Boston Globe.
Mark Jackson, principal of Amherst Regional High School, said that while he supports its aims, administrators didn’t feel the AP program at his school needed help.
“We have 14 or 15 AP classes,” he said. “The program seemed targeted to those that didn’t have them. Also, at the time they approached us in 2009, we were cutting budgets and the prospect of adding courses did not seem right.”
Nationally, critics of AP courses have raised concerns about whether they create too much stress for students and crowd out other academic offerings.
Supporters of AP offerings cite studies showing that students who pass at least one AP exam are three times more likely to graduate from college than students who don’t take the test. Research also shows AP courses draw more experienced teachers than regular classes.
Northampton High School physics teacher Amy Johnson said expanding AP enrollments benefits overall learning.
“Some teachers feel AP is only for the best and the brightest,” said Johnson, who is working as a training consultant to the program while she’s on maternity leave this fall. “But our real goal in doing this is to get kids to love science, or the other subjects. Even if they only score a 2 on the exam, they still feel awesome.”
Northampton’s AP results have made it “a spectacular example” among the program’s 60 schools statewide, says Massachusetts Math and Science Initiative President Morton Orlov.
Since 2008, the number of students enrolled in AP math, science and English classes at NHS has grown more than 102 percent, from 236 to 479, according to program reports. More than half of the junior class has signed up for AP English this fall.
In addition, the number of students earning AP scores of 4 or 5, which are equivalent to college-level As and Bs, has gone from 104 to 271. More than half of all students enrolled in AP classes in all three subjects at NHS earned the two highest scores.
Two other local districts that are part of the initiative, Easthampton and South Hadley, have also made significant gains in AP enrollments and the number of students earning qualifying scores. (See related story.)
Orlov said initiative leaders are exploring the best way to continue the program, which has provided close to $1 million to the three local districts to train teachers and draw more students to AP classes and exams.
“What a district like Northampton has demonstrated is what is possible with most students in the building,” he said. “We’re looking at how we can institutionalize that success and sustain it.”
Orlov said his organization will compete for the $2 million in state funding and will also seek additional funds to make the AP support program available to more public schools in the state.
In the meantime, the initiative has cut the subsidy it provides to students in “launch” districts — South Hadley among them — for AP exam fees. Those subsidies will drop from 50 percent of the $75 per-exam cost to 25 percent, in order to stretch the program’s $5.7 million operating budget, Orlov said.
Northampton is not a launch district and does not receive those subsidies. Easthampton did when it first joined the initiative but has since moved into the “gain” category of schools that don’t receive help with exam fees.
This year, for the first time, the initiative is also charging participating districts a partial fee for the cost of Saturday study sessions for students, Orlov said.
“We’re looking for the right balance of public and private money,” he said of the program’s future. “What we’re talking about is how we can reduce costs, yet still deliver the essential supports. That’s what we’re working on right now.”
Johnson, the Northampton High School teacher, said there are three keys to the program’s success: Saturday study sessions, professional development for teachers and supplies — in that order.
“The saddest thing to go would be the Saturday sessions,” she said. “It gives us extra face time with the kids, which has been just phenomenal because Massachusetts doesn’t start school till Sept. 7, so we get shorted six weeks of AP instruction” compared to other states.
NHS Principal Nancy Athas said teacher training has been an important component of the school’s AP initiative. She said that will continue in-house.
“Our teachers are now training other teachers in the MMSI program,” Athas said. “So I think that piece will stay.”
Science Department Chair Susan Biggs — one of two NHS teachers honored by the national Math and Science Initiative this year — stressed that support from school families has also been key.
“Our kids are motivated and they get support at home,” Biggs said. “There’s an understanding that the prep sessions will be beneficial and there’s a willingness to persevere. The kids we’re still not reaching are the ones who don’t have those same supports.”
At Easthampton High School, where the initiative is in its third year, chemistry teacher Shawn Sheehan said the program has helped AP classes become “more a part of the culture” of the school.
“I’ve seen more students taking a risk and taking an AP course,” he said. “It’s exciting to hear kids in the hallways talking about taking those classes.”
Senior Bayleigh Murphy said the AP classes she’s taken at EHS “have given me more of a feel for how hard I’ll have to work in college.”
“In those classes, kids are more willing to learn,” added Murphy, who has taken AP history and English and is now enrolled in AP calculus. “It’s really like a college class.”
Her classmate, Samantha Brand, signed up for her first AP class, in U.S. history, in her sophomore year. Since then she’s taken AP offerings in chemistry, environmental science, English and now calculus.
“I learned how to manage my time better,” Brand said. “And I’m looking at picking up college credits.”
College credits are also a draw in Northampton, though students enrolled in AP classes said that can’t be the only motivation.
“You have to be interested in the subject to do well,” said NHS senior Elliot Weiss, who scored a 4 on his first AP chemistry exam as a sophomore.
Students said the Saturday sessions and extra support from teachers ease the potential stress of AP classes.
“You have to work more, but it’s your responsibility,” said senior Ben Cohen. “It’s definitely do-able.”
At South Hadley High School, which will host an event publicizing the school’s AP program on Oct. 11, Assistant Principal Ted McCarthy said planning starts at the middle school level.
“We talk to them about what skills need to be embedded in middle school to be successful in AP in high school,” he said. “That jump is significant. This is a college-level class.”
While this year’s cuts in subsidies for exam fees and payments to students for qualifying scores are not ideal, McCarthy said, they’re not the most important part of the AP support program at his school.
“It’s a mindset,” he said. “It’s another tool in the toolbox to reach a wider variety of kids. The goal is to get kids who may not see themselves as AP students to enroll.”