The floor in Sheri Porubski’s classroom is a minefield of backpacks. The desks are strewn with soda cans and candy wrappers. It’s lunchtime, and 20 teenagers have made this space their hangout.
Several students crowd around Ms. Porubski, asking questions about the lesson she taught in English class that morning. Others cluster around the room in twos and threes, helping one another interpret passages in novels or history textbooks.
These students have accepted Samuel W. Wolfson High School’s challenge: Take the leap into Advanced Placement courses, and we’ll give you extra support. So here they are, black, brown, and white, native-born and immigrant, poor and middle-class, choosing to ignore the warm, sunny day outside and hunker down with their books.
Ashley Lloyd leans on a stack of textbooks in the “lunch ’n’ learn” session. She is just the sort of student Wolfson High hopes to lure into college-level coursework. An African-American whose mother works in a cafeteria, the 15-year-old sophomore was skeptical when Ms. Porubski presented the idea in an assembly at her middle school two years ago.
“I was like, ‘Uh, AP?’” she recalled, wrinkling her nose. “It sounded hard. But I thought about it, and I like challenges. I like to take a risk.”
She took AP Human Geography as a freshman, and is taking AP World History this year. Next year, she’s laid out a formidable load:AP English Language and Composition,AP U.S. History, and an AP science course. Her experience so far has shown her she can do it.
These five urban districts have 45,000 students in 27 schools enrolled in the program. One group of schools began in 2006-07, and the rest are in their first year.
4 schools 1st year;
4 schools 2nd year
4 schools in 1st year
• District of Columbia
3 schools in 2nd year
• Duval County, Fla.
4 schools in 1st year;
4 schools in 2nd year
• Hillsborough County, Fla.
4 schools in 1st year
SOURCE: College Board
“I found out that it was difficult, but if you studied and did the reading, it was OK,” she said. “It made me become a harder worker.”
Wolfson High, on the south side of Jacksonville, is one of 27 schools in five cities across the country that chose to participate in a College Board initiative called EXCELerator. The program aims to diversify the AP classroom, which often serves disproportionate numbers of teenagers from white, affluent, educated families. Eleven high schools, including Wolfson, are in their second year of the program. Sixteen others are in their first.
EXCELerator is one of many projects nationwide driven by the growing conviction that high schools must stop reserving their more rigorous offerings for college-bound students. In an increasingly competitive, global economy, educators argue, all students need the cognitive skills built by college-level coursework.
“Kids need college-like skills even if they’re not going to college,” said Ed Pratt-Dannals, the superintendent of the 125,000-student Duval County district. “Many people still think in terms of the old economy. But even running a lift truck at the port now means mastering advanced electronic systems.”
The New York City-based College Board, which administers the Advanced Placement program, uses its own money and a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support EXCELerator. In Duval County, some county and state funds support the program as well. (The Gates Foundation underwrites Education Week’s annual report on high school graduation.)
Data from the first group of EXCELerator schools show that they offer more AP courses than they did before participating, and enroll more students in those classes. The number of AP exams being taken has more than doubled, but the number of exams that earn a passing score—a 3 or higher out of 5, signifying college-level mastery—has not increased as much. Students who earn a passing score may qualify for college credit.
College Board officials are concerned about—but not surprised by—the passing rates. Many of the students now taking the advanced courses have not had the years of strong academic preparation that traditional AP students have had, the officials say, and many of the teachers are new to the curriculum.
“I think of it as the growing pains of the program,” said Michael N. Riley, the College Board vice president who oversees EXCELerator. “The scores will get better through development of the pipeline, with more teacher training, and more support for kids.”
Wolfson High is building its program, with victories and struggles along the way. With only one in four of its sophomores reading at grade level, and only two of every three of its students graduating, the need to boost rigor and achievement seemed clear. Wolfson has more than tripled AP enrollment among its 1,900 students, from 346 in 2005-06 to 1,156 in 2007-08. (The numbers include multiple classes taken by individual students.)
And more Wolfson students are taking the AP exams: from 238 exams in 2006 to 968 in 2007. But, reflecting national trends, as more students take the tests, which are encouraged but not required, the portion that passes them declines. In 2006, 40 percent of the AP exams given at Wolfson scored 3s or higher. In 2007, 20 percent did.
Nationally, 57 percent of AP exams taken in 2007 scored 3 or higher. (“AP Trends: Tests Soar, Scores Slip,” Feb. 20, 2008.)
Wolfson Principal Hammond R. Gracy knows the AP pass rates must rise. But he rejoices that so many students are jumping into tougher coursework.
“Taking AP courses has tremendous value for these students,” he said, “even those who don’t pass the exam.”
In some schools in the Duval County district, the growing pains are even more acute. At William M. Raines High, in a high-poverty neighborhood on Jacksonville’s north side, students took 302 AP exams last spring, but only three exams earned a passing score. Educators there are betting that more time with the EXCELerator model will improve the picture.
Still, Raines science teacher Amanda Wilson says it hurts her to see students work so hard and feel so disappointed when they don’t pass the exams. She sees their lack of skill and interest in reading as a huge obstacle.
The number of AP exams being taken by students has more than doubled, but the number of exams receiving passing scores has gone up less than 25 percent.
Note: 2004-05 and 2005-06 represent preprogram baseline data; 2006-07 is first-year implementation data.
SOURCE: College Board
“Some of the kids feel like they are being set up for failure,” Ms. Wilson said at a recent meeting of Duval County educators with College Board officials at Raines High. They are brainstorming ways to address the reading-skills issue.
The College Board provides or coordinates intensive training for EXCELerator schools’ staffs in the various pieces of the model. Teachers are trained to teach the key parts of its package: AP courses; classes that build students’ academic skills and support them as they undertake AP, called Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID; and the College Board’s SpringBoard lessons, a set of project- and inquiry-based English and mathematics courses that EXCELerator officials view as strong preparation for AP.
The number of AP courses offered by schools in the first cohort of the EXCELerator program has increased 34 percent in the past two school years.
SOURCE: College Board
Early February found about 25 Duval County high school teachers gathered at a Jacksonville leadership-training site to hone their skills teaching AP World History. With their coach, they explored ways to help students grasp the complexities of what drives historical change over time, rather than adopting a simple “this is how it was in 1492, and this is how it was in 1750” view.
Guidance counselors and other school staff members learn to see more students as having the potential to give AP a whirl. They begin to examine not only test scores and grades for signs of a promising match, but also a student’s desire to take on a bigger challenge. They receive training in juggling the jigsaw pieces of the school schedule so students have room for the double blocks of time needed for AP and AVID.
School leaders, in turn, are trained to oversee all the pieces of a culture shift that presumes college or college-level skills will be the rule, not the exception. Those duties can range from inspiring and supporting staff members to hanging students’ college-acceptance letters in the front entryway, as they do at Wolfson.
The pieces of the program come together along the halls of Wolfson High. On a recent morning, a multiracial group of students is discussing Leonardo da Vinci’s contributions to Renaissance art in an AP Art History class. An equally diverse class of sophomores in a SpringBoard English class is tackling Chinua Achebe’s classic novel Things Falling Apart.
Freshmen in Mariann Howard’s AVID English class have read and highlighted an article about whether runner Oscar Pistorius’ prosthetic legs should disqualify him from competing in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Facing one another, they take turns presenting informed arguments, listening to opposing positions, reflecting what their opponents said, and responding.
Ms. Porubski isn’t the only teacher taking lunch with her students. Other teachers stay in their classrooms to be available as well. Many also offer extra support after school.
The added work follows them home, too. English teacher Jacquie Tinsley now uses her planning period to teach AP English, adding preparation time to an already full schedule and taxing her stamina. But she says it’s worth it.
“It’s a great opportunity for me,” she said. “Teaching AP is much closer to the experience of being a college professor.”
In a conference room off the main office, the teachers on Wolfson’s leadership team gather with Mr. Gracy for a weekly meeting. They listen as a colleague presents what he learned at a conference about new approaches to interventions for struggling students. Several students discuss their experience in AP classes. “It changed my outlook on biology and influenced me to go into medicine,” says senior Aleksandar Gutalj. “I always thought it was just plants and animals. But it went into much more detail and was really interesting.” In the guidance office, counselor Jennifer Mumford is preparing for dozens of one-on-one sessions with students identified as having potential to succeed in Advanced Placement. More than 1,200 of the school’s 1,500 freshmen, sophomores, and juniors received letters inviting them to give it a try.
Now, Ms. Mumford and her colleagues are setting up chats with each of them. They will try to persuade them to take the leap, and sketch out their fall 2008 class schedules. Later, they’ll track down the students who don’t sign up and gently nag them. They will also hold an “AP parent night,” where Wolfson staff members will urge parents to support their children in trying the advanced coursework. Ms. Mumford said that getting the AP letters has a powerful effect on students.
“They feel they are on top,” she said. “It gives them a different sense of self. It helps them do not just the AP work, but all their work.”
A few Duval County parents have questioned the district’s push to expand AP, district officials said. Those parents argue that it doesn’t serve teenagers who want to graduate and get a local job at the port authority, or in the airport, trucking, and service industries that dominate the area.
At Wolfson High, parents see both opportunity and room for improvement in the initiative.
Lori Menger said her 9th grade son is taking two AP classes, and sometimes she worries he’s bitten off too much. But she likes the mentoring, support, and skill-building that his AVID classes provide. If Wolfson had not expanded its AP offerings, she would have considered a magnet school for her son because she wants him “in a positive environment where kids want to do well.”
Still, she has mixed feelings about the EXCELerator approach.
“I think it’s good for kids who might be overlooked who would rise to the occasion,” Ms. Menger said. “But sometimes, with so many kids going in, some kids get in there and act up, and it can mess up the experience of the kids who are really driven and looking forward to being in those classes.”
Kimberly Stephens, whose 10th grade daughter is taking her second AP class this year, said EXCELerator changes a pattern in which schools “shortchanged” children by viewing them as unable or unwilling to work hard.
“If we at least ask them to try, a lot of these students are showing they can step up to the plate and do whatever is required to pass,” she said. “We should require every student to do something beyond what somebody has said are their boundary levels.”
Coverage of district-level improvement efforts is underwritten in part by grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the March 12, 2008 edition of Education Week as Opening AP to All