What can Beanie Babies possibly have to do with advanced-placement courses? Math teacher Sandra Freeman will show you. She doles out strings of linked rubber bands to teams of ninth-graders at Dallas's Science-Engineering Magnet school (SEM). Their mission: Predict how many rubber bands it will take for the Beanie Baby to "bungee" from the balcony and get near the floor without hitting it. The team that gets closest wins M&Ms.
Ms. Freeman is among the ranks of "pre-AP" teachers participating in the Dallas AP Incentives Program. Working with AP teachers in "vertical teams" that stretch from middle school to high school, they help ensure that kids get ready for the rigors of AP courses. Team members earn extra pay for attending training and tutoring students.
The system enables people like Freeman - known for smart teaching and always having a fun activity up her sleeve - to share their methods.
If initiatives like the one in Dallas "put pressure on the teachers in elementary schools to get these kids up to speed, that would be the greatest benefit," says Abigail Thernstrom, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute think tank. Racial achievement gaps appear very early, she says, and if they aren't addressed, more access to AP in high school won't make much difference.
Pre-AP in Dallas currently doesn't start until the seventh grade, but teachers say it has a significant impact, even beyond the students in designated pre-AP classes.
"We have teachers show up for AP conferences for English who teach special-ed, who teach ESL [English as a second language], and they all leave saying, 'Our kids can do some of this too' - because they learn good teaching strategies," says Ronda Brandon, program coordinator for Advanced Placement Strategies Inc.
One student who benefited from pre-AP opportunities is Davis Castillo. As a freshman at SEM last year, he was in Freeman's fast-track math class, but he convinced her to let him sit in on another teacher's AP calculus class and take the exam. He scored a five, the highest grade possible on it. "A teacher in middle school inspired me," he says. Now he's aiming for a scholarship to MIT or CalTech (California Institute of Technology).
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