School districts that want strong Advanced Placement programs have something in common with their high school students: they want to make the honor roll.
In a district’s case, it’s the AP District Honor Roll, which measures increased student participation and improved performance in AP classes over a three-year period. In all, 30 Kentucky public school systems have made this honor roll thus far. Among the keys to their success: open enrollment, eliminating honors classes, early preparation of students and teacher training.
Carrie Lichtenberg talks to students in her AP seminar class. Lichtenberg,
who has taught AP classes for 14 years, said there is “almost a constant
dialogue" between teachers in all grade levels at Fort Thomas schools.
Ultimately, success in advanced placement classes starts with the students, said Hopkins County Schools Superintendent Linda Zellich.
“It starts by educating the students on what an opportunity this is and that you can do it. I think it’s just a confidence-building thing,” she said. “We just realized that we had students that could do more than they were doing and that they needed to challenge themselves if they were going to go on and be that successful in college.”
Hopkins County Schools was one of six districts in Kentucky named to the sixth annual AP Honor Roll last fall. The honor roll is overseen by the College Board.
Fort Thomas Independent Schools Superintendent Gene Kirchner said the key in his district, which made the AP Honor Roll for a second straight year, is open enrollment.
“We have a lot more students than ever taking advanced placement courses and the pass rates are going up at the same time,” he said. “Part of the mentality that schools sometimes have about limiting who takes advanced placement is the concern about the pass rate. They feel like if the wrong students get in there, their pass rates will go down. … That’s the fear I think that a lot of schools have about providing open access to advanced placement.”
After taking an AP course, students may opt, for a fee, to take a test in that course. Students must score at a certain level, generally a three or better on a five-point scale, for potential college credit at most four-year colleges or universities.
Fort Thomas Highlands High School principal Brian Robinson said in 2005 the school administered about 200 AP tests to its students. In May, the school will give 1,500 tests.
Robinson said students at his school “almost have to opt out as opposed to opt in (to AP classes), which is a little bit different.”
“The most important thing,” Robinson said, “is just to believe very deeply that all kids can succeed when given enough support and encouragement.”
Sara Steffen, a junior at Highlands, is taking three AP classes and one dual-credit class. She said she decided to take AP classes because it would give her experience for college.
“If you want to be successful you have to want it yourself,” said Steffen, who is planning to take four AP classes next year.
Hopkins County also uses the open enrollment policy and once students are in an AP-level class, they can’t drop down to a regular class without the school contacting the parents, said Lori Vanover, a guidance counselor at Madisonville North Hopkins High School.
“I always want more students to take AP because I know how beneficial it is for them all the way around,” Vanover said.
Eliminating the middle ground
Hopkins County Schools made its first appearance on the AP Honor Roll this year. Seven to eight years ago the district made all classes either regular or AP to encourage more enrollment in AP classes.
“We don’t have any classes here that are labeled as honors,” Vanover said. “We have pre-AP for any class leading into an AP class. As soon as we have an AP class on that grade level, that’s all the choice is (besides the regular class in that subject).”
Fort Thomas also phased out some of its advanced classes to give two options as a core class.
“That automatically increased our enrollment (in AP classes),” Robinson said. “The next question is how do you make them successful? That’s the key to building on the program.”
One way to help students’ succeed in AP classes is to teach them the skills needed at an earlier age.
“It has to be a K-12 focus to ensure that students are ready and prepared, and have the mindset to take advantage of that opportunity at the high school level,” Kirchner said.
As part of this focus, teachers at Fort Thomas’ middle school and high school meet regularly. Carrie Lichtenberg, who has taught AP classes for 14 of her 17 years at Highlands, said the district’s English department meets formally three times a year but beyond that there is “almost a constant dialogue.”
Students at Highlands Middle School take essentially pre-AP curriculum, called Springboard, to ensure they’re getting a solid foundation to be successful when they reach high school, Kirchner said.
“There’s not this huge gap between the experiences they’ve had and the experience they’re going to have if they take an advanced placement course,” he said. “Having that prior experience and that academic preparation all the way through is one of the reasons why our pass rates are high, too.”
Bracken County Schools, which was named to the fourth annual AP Honor Roll, also used early preparation to ready students for AP-level courses.
“Really it was just looking at earlier grades, elementary and middle school, and really making an effort of making our coursework more rigorous,” Bracken County Superintendent Jeff Aulick said.
Kirchner said AP teachers at Highlands, like in most districts with successful AP programs, have annual training so “they stay up-to-date with curriculum.”
“One of the best things you can do is pair a veteran teacher with a newer teacher to the program – because you’ll have to add a teacher if you’re adding enrollment – and then have them collaborate,” Lichtenberg advised.
Marty Cline, the director of secondary instruction for Hopkins County Schools, said it’s the teachers that make the difference with students’ AP success.
“The teachers go out of their way to receive the training and then implement those high expectations into their classrooms,” Cline said. “So I think a lot of this credit goes on them as well.”