In this AP program, it pays to study

It's just after lunch, and the students in Nick Hademenos's advanced-placement (AP) physics class are throwing things - a shoe, a soda bottle, and a calculator, to be precise.

But they're not being rowdy. Instead, these students at Dallas's Science and Engineering Magnet School are videotaping their tosses and replaying them frame by frame to plot the curve.

It may look simple. But the experiment represents years of fine-tuning by David Castro. The visiting teacher is part of a program that's dramatically increasing the number of students - particularly minorities - who take AP courses and exams.

As a "lead teacher," Mr. Castro has a reduced courseload so he'll have time to mentor newer AP teachers and help develop curriculum.

The Advanced Placement Incentives Program funds extra teacher-training and student-tutoring sessions in 10 Dallas public high schools. And it adds an unusual sweetener: For each passing score on AP exams in math, science, and English, a student gets $100, and teachers and schools get bonus money as well.

Participants say the results speak for themselves. In 1995-96, the program's first year, the number of students who earned passing scores in the targeted subjects more than doubled to 320, from 139. By last spring, the number had climbed to 754, thrusting the schools above both the Texas and the United States average - and into the public eye.

A routine offering in wealthy schools, AP classes have become a powerful symbol of educational equity in recent years. Low-income students and minorities have long had limited access to the classes, either because they aren't academically prepared or their schools don't offer them. Rural schools, too, often lack the funds and expertise to include AP courses.

A jump-start to college

But the rigorous curriculum can influence college acceptances and allow students to receive as much as a year of undergraduate college credit. And as the program gains stature as a nationally recognized standard, pressure has grown to widen access for all students.

"AP courses more and more are becoming factors in [college] admissions decisions, so if the student does not have access to an AP course, there's an equity issue there," says Kay Wilson, a Dallas-based associate director for the southwest region of The College Board, which oversees more than 30 advanced-placement courses nationwide.

The concerns have surfaced everywhere from legislatures to courts. Last year, students from a largely minority community in California filed a lawsuit against the state because of a dearth of AP courses compared with other districts.

US Secretary of Education Richard Riley has set a goal to make some AP courses available in every high school by 2002. That means adding about 9,000 schools to the 13,000 that already participate. Federal grants offer subsidies for the $76 AP exam fee and teacher training.

Statewide initiatives

No large school district has yet copied Dallas's comprehensive approach. But at the state level, Utah already requires each high school to offer at least two AP courses, and New York allows AP English scores to satisfy Regents requirements. Last year, Texas appropriated $21 million for AP incentives.

The Dallas program was born when the local O'Donnell Foundation decided its mission to strengthen graduate-level science and engineering would falter without improvements earlier in the pipeline. Now that O'Donnell's five-year commitment has expired, the Texas Instruments Foundation has committed $8.2 million to fund the next five years.

"There are so many donors who want to give to education, and this program is attractive to them because it has measurable results," says Gregg Fleisher, president of Advanced Placement Strategies Inc., a nonprofit group set up to manage the Dallas initiative. Since the exams are administered by The College Board, there is less room for cash incentives to lead to corruption, he adds. AP teachers certainly appreciate the extra cash, which includes an $1,150 stipend for training, $20 an hour for extra tutoring, and $150 for each student who passes an AP exam.

Raising the bar

But they say what excites them most is how the program is changing school culture by raising expectations about what students can accomplish.

"We have to work on attitude as well as aptitude," says Joan Vinson, a lead teacher for AP English. "In Dallas, we still have a lot of first generation [prospective] college students, so there still is not that expectation at home, or the level of information about ... what you're going to have to do." To address that, the schools host meetings with parents to explain the value of AP courses.

"The kids get more time on task and they are more confident," says June Harmon, a lead math teacher. Because of the incentives, students in AP classes are encouraged to take the exams, and the teachers are encouraged to let everyone try, not just the ones they think will score high.

"Sometimes you're surprised: [There are] students you think might get a 2, and they pull a 3," Ms. Harmon says. (Three or higher out of a possible 5 on an AP exam is usually considered passing.)

The program has led to more than a few dramatic transformations, teachers say. "One girl, in the ninth grade, she didn't even know what MIT stood for, and she entered [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] this year on a full scholarship," says Brenda Bradford, another lead math teacher.

Even at the Science and Engineering Magnet (SEM), where MIT dreams are palpable, kids say the incentives make a big difference. By the time they are seniors, some of them have taken a dozen or more AP classes.

"When I go to college, I'm going to get credit for all these courses, so I'm making money now, and I'm saving money later for my parents," says senior Justin Appleby, who is currently taking six AP classes.

To prepare for exams, students and teachers from all the schools come together for day-long workshops known as "Super Saturdays." Justin says these have helped him excel. "It really gets out all the misconceptions [about the AP tests]."

Students helping students

Back in Mr. Hademenos's physics class, after Jacquisha McHenry's team has plotted its graph, she puts her shoe back on and talks about how the AP incentives program has encouraged students to mentor one another.

"There was a guy here who's now at Stanford. He's my inspiration. He told me all the advantages [of taking AP classes] when I was a sophomore, and now he tells me how much it helps him in college. I'm trying to do the same with the underclassmen." With the money she earned last year for her AP exams, Jacquisha bought a scanner - "I'm a computer freak" - and a DVD player.

For some students, the key financial benefit is just being able to take the exams in the first place. With subsidies, they are practically free. At SEM, about 30 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, says Principal Richard White. In some of the other participating schools, the percentage of low-income students is much higher.

Dallas has shown that many students who tend to be dismissed as unprepared for AP can do well if given the right support, says Fleisher, a former AP calculus teacher. "These nine schools [that participated in the first five years] accounted for 3 percent of the minorities in the country who passed AP calculus - because in the rest of the country, they are excluded."

Even if students don't score well enough on exams to earn college credit, teachers say AP participation helps them prepare well for college.

But teachers do strive for kids to score well. They now collaborate much more to improve AP courses, and they also partner with middle school "pre-AP" teachers to ensure more kids get on track to take AP in high school (see box, page 18).

The program has even helped some schools make up for shortages in math and science teachers, because the supportive environment has drawn skilled people out of retirement or from other parts of Texas.

"I really think it's a symbolic acknowledgement of excellence," says Castro. "In almost any other industry, if you're successful, you get recognized for that."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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