Thursday, October 06, 2016

Small rural high school finds a way to get nearly half of students in advanced-placement classes

Paonia, Colo. (Best Places map)
A small rural high school in a coal-depleted region of Colorado has found a creative way to get more students enrolled in Advanced Placement classes, Kate Schimel and Leah Todd report for "Small Towns, Big Change," a High Country News series by seven news organizations in Colorado and New Mexico.

Until 2011, officials at Paonia High School, which only has 16 teachers, "felt training faculty to teach nationally certified AP classes, and recruiting enough students to make them worthwhile, seemed unattainable," Schimel and Todd write. Then came the Colorado Legacy Schools project—launched by education advocacy-and-research group Colorado Education Initiative—which funded innovative ways to increase the number and diversity of students taking AP classes.

Instead of applying for funds to train its own teachers and subsidize test fees, Paonia High "teamed up with two nearby schools, rearranging bell schedules and setting up videoconference classrooms to more than triple their collective AP offerings," Schimel and Todd write. "It’s a promising model for rural, resource-limited schools trying to bring more college-prep opportunities to their few students." Now, 66 of Paonia’s 153 students take at least one AP class.

An AP class at Paonia held via videoconference.
(High Country News photo by Brooke Warren)
"Starting in 2011, schools used the Legacy Schools grant to offer incentives," Schimel and Todd write. "Teachers received $100 for every student who passed the end-of-semester exam, and passing students earned the same payout per test. The grant, which now operates in 47 schools statewide, also relies on an aggressive recruiting campaign. By showing videos, holding assemblies, and visiting classrooms, school staff have tried to change the perception of Advanced Placement courses — from something that just the 'smart' kids do, to classes for anyone who wants to graduate college."

Critics say "if more students take rigorous classes, teachers will water down the curriculum," Schimel and Todd write. "The evidence so far suggests otherwise. Schools using the CEI grant have seen an average of 70 percent higher enrollment in AP classes in the first year, and a nearly equal jump — 65 percent — in qualifying scores. And students who take an AP course through the grant are more than twice as likely to attend and persist through their first year of college."

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