There's an AP for that

At summer seminar, teachers learn advanced courses aren’t just for some

Three AP environmental science teachers work together on a lab assignment their students could do during the school year. At the AP for All Summer Institute, about 500 teachers showed up to the Metropolitan State University of Denver to learn about new teaching techniques to entice more kids to take AP courses.

When Miranda Schaelling started an Advanced Placement environmental science course three years ago at Harrison High School in Colorado Springs only 16 students enrolled. But next fall, her class roster will boast 126 students.

Her key to increasing enrollment? Encourage everyone to join, regardless of science proficiency, and to not worry about the end-of-year test many students take for college credit.

“I tell them all the time, especially after the first exam…it’s not about passing the test, it’s not about making a qualifying score, it’s about learning how to handle the workload,” she said. “Especially because a majority of my students are sophomores, it’s about learning study skills, learning accountability, learning what college is actually like.”

More than 60,000 Colorado high school students were in enrolled in at least one AP course during the 2012-2013 school year. That’s 7,000 more than just five years before, according to data from the Colorado Department of Education.

But according to data from College Board, only half of the students who could potentially succeed in an AP course took one. Even a smaller percentage of students of color, who could be successful in an advanced course, enrolled in those classes.

“So for every five black adolescents who has a very high potential to pass an AP exam, only one will ever take the course,” said Greg Hessee, the director of Colorado Legacy Schools for the Colorado Education Initiative, which provides grants to schools to pay for AP tests for students who can’t afford the fee.

In the past, schools haven’t pushed AP courses on all students.

They worry that by pushing all students to take rigorous courses, regardless of how prepared they are in the subject, could dilute the course for more advanced students or that those unprepared students could feel overwhelmed. In addition, some are skeptical that students who take these courses actually benefit from them if they don’t pass the end of year exam.

But these problems shouldn’t arise if AP programs are implemented correctly, said Kevin Welner, the director of the National Education Policy Center.

“If [expanding access to AP programs] is done poorly, yes this is problem,” Welner said. “If you have teachers who haven’t been prepared to teach a more diverse class of students and they try teach to the ‘middle’ of the class [and don’t] teach in a way that is engaging and challenging to all levels of kids, then yes, there could be a problem. But if you have the supports for students and teachers built into it, then no, it’s not a problem.”

That’s why the AP for All Summer Institute is important, Hessee said. About 500 teachers from around the world, hoping to replicate Schaelling’s success at enrolling more students in rigorous high school courses, participated in this week-long conference in Denver. The emphasis of this program is that advanced classes should be open to all students, regardless of proficiency in the subject, race, or socioeconomic status.

“I think that’s why it’s important to have it here in Denver. To give teachers those support systems as well as strategies…so they know how to handle this when they get back in their classroom,” Hessee said. “I believe we’re building momentum to change the historic notion of AP just being for that top five percent of students to something that all students deserve to receive support with.”

A student’s readiness for AP classes can be determined by a number of factors, such as their grade in a prerequisite class or their scores on a preliminary SAT exam. Some schools use an online tool, known as AP Potential, to identify students with a 60 percent or higher likelihood of succeeding in particular AP subjects.

Hessee said AP courses, and the resulting skills in college readiness, are especially important at a school like Schaelling’s Harrison, which serves a high-risk population: 71 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch and more than 60 percent of the students are Hispanic or black.

“Every student who has the will should be allowed to engage in Advancement Placement courses,” Hessee said. “That’s not how all AP programs have been run but more and more frequently it is. It’s not just the honors students…it’s any student who wants to learn at an advanced rate regardless of whether or not they can pass an Advanced Placement exam.”

At the summer workshop, teachers learned tactics to identify students with potential to thrive in AP courses, even if they might not pass the end of year test. Teachers were told by workshop leaders that if students challenge themselves, they can benefit from the advanced courses by getting a taste of college rigor.

“If they increase enrollment in their course they can also increase college readiness, even for students who aren’t your typical AP kids, kids who aren’t considered ‘AP worthy’ or ‘AP ready,’” Hessee said.

The idea that AP courses can be for all students is something Schaelling tries to implement at Harrison.

“We’re trying to get a lot more kids [to take AP classes], and I teach at more of a lower socioeconomic school, so AP for us is a really big deal,” she said. “Teaching them those college skills is essential for them because I know they’re going to go to college. They’re on their way. They just need the skills more than they need the passing test scores.”

bargaining

Chicago’s Acero teachers vote 98% to authorize first-ever charter school strike

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Members of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff protest before an Acero network board meeting in October.

Teachers at 15 Acero schools overwhelmingly voted Tuesday evening to authorize a strike, setting the stage for the first walkout in the nation by teachers at a charter network.

With a 96 percent turnout of the estimated 500 union-represented Acero Teachers, 98 percent of members voted to grant a strike authorization. The teachers union can now announce a strike date if contract negotiations reach an impasse, according to the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS).

Acero, formerly named UNO, is the largest unionized charter-school operator in Chicago Public Schools. Its contract with teachers expired Aug. 2 and was extended until Oct. 3. But talks have been stalled, union officials said.

If teachers do walk out, it could be the country’s first charter school strike, union leaders said.

At issue in the contract negotiations are higher pay, increased diversity among teaching staff in majority Latino schools, smaller class sizes, better special education services and teacher evaluations.

Chicago International Charter Schools teachers will also take a strike authorization vote Friday.

Changing course

Memphis’ only program for adults to get high school diploma gets lifeline from district leaders

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Kennishia Pratts, 19, is on track to graduate from The Excel Center in December. She plans to attend Spelman College, a prestigious historically black women’s college.

Update on Oct. 30, 2018: The Shelby County Schools board approved this contract. 

The only thing that was keeping 19-year-old Kennishia Pratts from a job she really needed was a high school diploma, one potential employer told her.

So Pratts decided she would go back to school. She tried to enroll at a nearby high school, but was ineligible because of her age. That’s when she turned to The Excel Center, a charter school for adults and the only place in Memphis adults can get their high school diploma — not just an equivalent commonly known as a GED.

“When they told me I could get my official high school diploma here, I was ecstatic,” Pratts said. “I’d rather have my high school diploma where I know that I’m for sure going to get into college, I’m for sure going to get this job.”

With two children to support, “I have to make a living out here,” explained Pratts, who is on track to graduate later this year.

But now Excel is slated to close at the end of this academic year because it hasn’t graduated enough students on time and has posted low scores on state standardized tests, called TNReady. By state law, any charter school on the Tennessee Department of Education’s “priority list,” composed of the state’s lowest-performing schools, must close.

That’s why Shelby County Schools is stepping in to help keep Excel’s doors open to serve what Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called a “unique population.” It would no longer be a charter school, but a “contract school,” according to district policy. The state is also supporting the switch because “as an adult high school, the Excel Center does not fit the K-12 charter model,” a state spokeswoman said.

The school board is expected to vote Tuesday on a proposed contract between the district and Goodwill Industries that would set up a different set of expectations for adult learners.

The need for schools like The Excel Center is immense. Adult education programs are scarce in Memphis, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. About 2,000 students drop out of high school every year, according to the city’s main school district. In addition, Memphis has the highest percentage in the nation of young people ages 16 to 24 not in school or working. Without a high school education, it’s that much harder to find a job. Those without a high school diploma are also more likely to end up in jail.

Adult learners come with different challenges than traditional students, school leaders say. They are more likely to need child care while they are in class, have inflexible, low wage jobs, and and need more help with academics because of long gaps in education.

State policy for schools like Excel is lacking, said Candis Dawson, the school’s director. Goodwill operates at least 20 similar schools in five states where there are different standards for measuring success at adult schools. For example, most adult learners missed graduating with their classmates. Since schools qualify for Tennessee’s priority list if the percentage of students graduating on time is below 67 percent, it’s unlikely the center would ever escape the dreaded list. (In 2018, the center’s on-time graduation rate — that is, within four years and a summer of entering 9th grade — was 8.8 percent.)

“It’s not a blame on the district or the state, but we were put in a holding pattern until key players came together to say this model wouldn’t work for us,” Dawson said. Otherwise, “we would automatically continue to fail.”

To address that, the proposed $239,000 contract for no more than 500 students would establish new metrics to gauge success. Students would still take TNReady end-of-course exams like their younger counterparts.

Specifically, the requirements to keep Excel open include:

  • 18 percent of students in an academic year gain their high school diploma
  • 20 percent of graduates within six months are hired for a job that pays more than minimum wage, receive a job certification, such as nursing assistant, or are accepted to attend a community college or four-year university.
  • 59 percent of students complete each eight-week term.

If the school fails for two straight years to meet those amended requirements, should they clear the board, Shelby County Schools could close the school.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
The Excel Center opened in 2015 as a charter school for adults to get their high school diploma.

Currently, the center employs 11 teachers for its 450 students and offers classes from 8:45 a.m. to 6:15 p.m., weekly bus passes, and free child care for children ages six weeks to 12 years. Younger children can also enroll in pre-kindergarten classes at Excel.

“They’re learning the power of education as they see their parents go to class,” said Chuck Molinski, the center’s vice president of education.

The school year is divided into five, eight-week sessions to accelerate students’ completion of credits. If needed, students attend remedial courses before enrolling in credit-bearing classes so they will be able to keep up with the faster pace. Students can enroll for a term, take a break for a term, and then return later, if needed. None of that would change under the new contract arrangement.

The average age of Excel students is 27, with the school serving students as young as 18 and as old as 84. The center also offers life-coaching to help students navigate services, such as housing and job placement. Every student is required to take a class on crafting resumes and cover letters, culminating in a presentation of a portfolio of their work. Job fairs, field trips to area businesses, and workshops on filling out college admissions paperwork is commonplace. Most students are enrolled for three or four terms before earning enough credits for a diploma. If a student has no high school credits coming in, it takes about 18 months attending classes full time to graduate. So far, the three-year-old school has graduated nearly 400 students.

A diploma, rather than a GED, is worth the extra effort, Molinski said.

“On the employer end it shows more of a dedication and devotion… Our students are having to take ACT, TNReady, and the civics exam,” he said. “It shows more dedication than just going on a computer and passing a test.”

Pratts, the Excel student, is now aiming beyond the job she was turned down before going back to school. She’s been admitted to Spelman College in Atlanta, a prestigious historically black women’s college. It’s something she never before thought possible.

“If they close [The Excel Center], a lot of people are going to be devastated because this school has helped a lot of people achieve things they never thought they would,” she said.