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.”

Revisiting CTE

Workforce training programs may soon look different in Memphis schools

Health care and information technology are among the career pathways that likely would be emphasized under a proposed revamp of career and technical education in Shelby County Schools.

Memphis students would get more opportunities to earn job certifications before graduation under a proposed revamp of career and technical education in Shelby County Schools.

Details of the overhaul are still under wraps, but Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin wants to make sure the district’s offerings align with the region’s most sought-after jobs. That may mean more classes focused on hot career fields like health care and information technology.

The school board is expected to get a first look at the proposal later this month.

Career and technical education, or CTE, is getting renewed attention under a state and federal push to prepare students for jobs of the future. And it’s especially important to students in Memphis because nearly half of graduates from Shelby County Schools don’t enroll in any formal education after high school and 21 percent aren’t working either — the highest rate in the nation.

Meanwhile, business leaders are talking with school leaders about improving education pathways to equip graduates for work in high-demand jobs that don’t necessarily require a college degree.

“We need our students to have work-based learning experiences and residencies and then [businesses] don’t even have to train them,” Griffin said. “They’ll come out with a license; we’re going to pay for it. They’ll come out with a license ready to work.”

Currently, the 27 traditional high schools in Tennessee’s largest district offer a total of 207 classes that explore 16 career paths ranging from finance to advanced manufacturing. About 20,000 students participate.

PHOTO: SCS
Hamilton High students tour Barnhart Crane and Rigging Co. in Memphis on National Manufacturing Day in 2016.

But of about 400 participating seniors who are eligible to gain job certification, less than half did so last school year. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson says that has got to change.  

“The point of revamping our CTE program is we don’t really have true effective career paths right now,” Hopson told school board members last week. “We spend $20 million on CTE, but its not designed to say that when I finish this program, I’ve got something I can go out to an employer and say ‘I’m skilled and I’m ready for this job and I’m certified.’”

Shelby County Schools has incentives to revamp its CTE programs. In response to a new federal education law, the Tennessee Department of Education will grade schools in part on how well they prepare students — not just for college, but for directly entering the workforce.

“It’s about making sure you can map and track and document and assess and quantify whether or not something is working,” said Terrence Brown, who co-directs CTE for the district. “And all of that has been on the college-bound, academic part of the house, not in trade and industry and skills and training. [Now] the age of accountability has now come to career and technical education.”

To measure a “ready graduate” under its new plan, Tennessee will look at how many students earned industry certification, took dual enrollment or Advanced Placement classes, passed military entrance exams, or earned a 21 or higher on the ACT. The metric accounts for 20 percent of school and district scores under a new grading system being rolled out later this year.

As part of its stepped-up commitment to workforce training, Shelby County Schools already has introduced a major change to one of its most historic high schools. East High began this school year to transition to an optional school focused on transportation logistics, engineering, and technology in partnership with several businesses such as global engineering manufacturer Cummins.

But the goal is to get a quarter of students districtwide participating in CTE by offering courses at more high schools. And the focus will be on equipping students for high-demand jobs that offer living wages in the Mid-South. More than 100 jobs fit that bill and not all require a college degree, according to a report from the Center for Economic Research in Tennessee. Those fields include electricians, machinists, medical record technicians, and computer support specialists, all of whom earned at least a median income of $40,000 per year in 2016.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos talks with students during a 2017 tour of career and technical education programs at Oakland High School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has promoted the importance of career training by visiting schools with robust CTE programs such as one in Murfreesboro that she toured last November during her first stop in Tennessee as education secretary.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who helped author the new federal education law, told Politico recently that updating how federal funds are allocated for CTE is one of his top priorities this year.

But some educators and advocates worry that CTE will become a second-tier track for students viewed as incapable of going to college — or that their advantage in a fast-changing workforce will be short-lived.

“We want to make sure we’re not doing what we use to do with (vocational-technical education),” said Maya Bugg, CEO of Tennessee Charter School Center. “My dad would tell me that, as a black male, they funneled him to vo-tech because you’re a black male.”

A 2015 Stanford University study of CTE programs in 11 countries showed short-term employment gains for students. However, the researchers also found that those students lacked the skills to adapt to changes in the economy later in life compared with peers with a more general education.

Brown said Shelby County’s redesigned program will focus on higher-wage jobs that students can get certified for during high school or can train for in technical schools after graduating. That could boost business prospects when big companies consider locating to Memphis — such as the city’s recent failed bid to land an Amazon headquarters.

“One of the things we believe Amazon was looking for was (information technology) people who could come off the bat and write code and set up cybersecurity,” Brown said. “If you have an IT certification, you’re going to be in demand.”

Change agent

Education group that started in a Memphis classroom up for national Renewal Award

PHOTO: LITE
Students participate in Let’s Innovate Through Education, a nonprofit organization that develops young entrepreneurs in Memphis. The group is a 2018 recipient of the national Renewal Award.

A Memphis education group started by a former teacher is among 25 nonprofit organizations named as finalists for a national award for helping to renew their communities.

Let’s Innovate Through Education, or LITE, was chosen among 3,000 nominees across the nation to compete for the 2018 Renewal Award. The annual competition, now in its third year, was created by The Atlantic and Allstate to recognize local organizations for their work.

The finalists now go head-to-head for votes to see which five groups will receive prizes of $20,000 each, while five runners-up will get $10,000. The public can vote here through Feb. 21 for the organization that they believe is creating the most local change.

LITE was created in 2013 in the classroom of Hardy Farrow, a former teacher at Power Center Academy. The group seeks to close the racial wealth gap by helping young entrepreneurs of color launch businesses through an eight-year training model that equips students with capital, networks, and coaching.

PHOTO: LITE
More than 2,000 Memphis students have worked with LITE, and 90 percent are on track to finish college.

“When people from around the nation see us on this list, I hope they take away that age shouldn’t be a deterrent from pursuing entrepreneurship and location shouldn’t be a deterrent,” said Farrow, who now serves as the group’s executive director. “A lot of people don’t view Memphis as a place for new businesses to grow, especially businesses launched by young people. We’re changing that.”

LITE starts with a six-month high school program for students who pitch their ideas and work on projects to improve their communities. In college, they receive competitive internships with local employers such as Choose 901, Regional One Health, and the Memphis Education Fund.

So far, more than 2,000 Memphis students have worked with LITE, and 90 percent are on track to finish college.

LITE is the only Tennessee organization up for this year’s Renewal Award, but it’s not the first time for LITE to receive national attention. In 2016, the Memphis group was named one of the 20 ideas that can change the world by Forbes Magazine. And in 2013, Teach For America called it one of the five most innovative ideas in teaching.

“For students in our program who go on to apply for jobs or internships, saying you’re a part of this nationally honored program helps you get in the door,” Farrow said of the latest award. “It gives you confidence in launching a business, to say that you were picked for this program, you finished high school, and no you can go out and do this.”

Jada Newsom, a graduate of Ridgeway High School and sophomore at Middle Tennessee State University, is among those students. She spoke with Chalkbeat last summer about the work experience she was gaining as an intern at Imagine U, a local entrepreneurship program where she and other interns were developing a system to help college students manage their money better.

“I like how working as a team gives me a different perspective,” Newsom said. “ We can combine our ideas to make something bigger.”

Chalkbeat reporter Helen Carefoot contributed to this report.