Blainetaking the lead in AP courses

Published on Thu, Feb 16, 2006 by ack Kintner

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Blaine taking the lead in AP courses

By Jack Kintner

Blaine high school math teacher John Freal began teaching an advanced placement (AP) class in calculus almost 10 years ago. Since then Blaine has become a statewide leader in the field as participation in the program has mushroomed.

Teachers like it because they get extra training and the chance to handle curriculum in more challenging and innovative ways. Administrators and counselors like it because it keeps the best and the brightest students on campus where they continue to be a part of the life of the school and keep financial support from the state, based on student census, coming to Blaine. Students like it because each class helps with college admission and may let students waive a required college course in the same subject, in effect giving them a scholarship worth thousands of dollars.

Blaine’sexperience has drawn statewide notice. Last month Barbara Dittrich from the state office of the superintendent of public instruction (OSPI) came to a Blaine school board meeting to put the district’s performance into perspective. “Based on the percent of students participating in AP classes,” she said, “Washington state ranks sixth nationally and Blaine is near the top in the state.”

Blaine currently offers 12 advanced placement classes in a greater variety of subjects than any other school of a similar size in Whatcom County, and more than most high schools of any size in the state. With roughly eight percent of the high school students in Whatcom County, Blaine has almost 15 percent of the AP students.

“What makes this even more significant,” said Blaine’s superintendent of schools Dr. Mary Lynne Derrington, “is that we have a relatively high poverty level in our district. The number of free and reduced lunches we serve is normally used as the indicator, and we thought it was fairly high at 27 percent in Chimacum. In Blaine it’s 50 percent.” Derrington was superintendent of schools in Chimacum before coming to Blaine in 2003.

A recent federal grant Blaine received is aimed at helping schools develop AP classes for overlooked student populations, those that may have significant amounts of poverty or other factors that keep students from being well prepared for higher education.

“I saw this grant notice come across my desk from OSPI,” said Blaine high school principal Dan Newell, “and turned it over to [English and social studies teacher Neil] Nix, who wrote the grant, and [grant coordinator and school counselor Karen] Mulholland, who coordinates it, and Don Lotze (currently on leave teaching in China) and they’ve done a good job making AP classes a major part of what we do here.”
Newell explained that part of Mulholland’s role is to make sure the AP tests that end each semester are obtained, handled correctly and returned.

“That’s a big deal,” Newell said, “because these are all done to a national standard, and it’s the coordinator who makes sure that everything happens the way it’s supposed to so students get credit for their work. It’s all run by the College Entrance Examination Board (CEEB), the people who put out the SATs, and they’re picky. It all has to be above reproach to mean anything.”

With the $10,000 per year in support for teacher training the grant provides, the AP offerings have grown until now fully one-third of Blaine’s juniors and seniors are enrolled in AP classes, some of which are so popular they have added a second section.

Teachers train on their own time in one and two-week seminars taught during the summer months. “It’s the best in-service I’ve ever been to,” said Nix, who added that soon the CEEB will begin certifying schools. Blaine has been told by the OSPI that it will be used as a model for other rural and small-town districts in the state to show what can be done.

Senior AP students Katherine Yorke and Donald Yung both said that it’s the enhancement to a college application that makes taking the classes worth it. “They don’t always give you just more work to do,” said Yorke, “the classes are more focused. You do have to think, and there’s more reading, a lot of which you’re expected to do before class.” Yorke said she’s already headed into the Marine Corps after graduating this spring and will train to be a jet mechanic, “but then I’ll go to college, and this will help a lot.”

Yung, who has taken seven classes and will add more in the spring, said that “It’s almost like a scholarship, since if you do well enough on the test at the end you can bypass a college course when you get there, and that saves a lot of money.” He plans to attend the University of Washington or the University of British Columbia and major in biology, perhaps as a precursor to medical school.

Mulholland said that the value of the college credits a student can earn in an AP class are impressive. “Four-year tuition in this state ranges from $94 per credit at a place like Western Washington University to almost $700 per credit at Whitman, so each three-credit course you pass for free here can save you up to $2,000 in college.”

She also pointed out that since the classes are taught and tested to a national standard it takes a lot of the guesswork out of admissions for college. “Our kids can go anywhere, and do,” Mulholland said, “because taking an AP class means you’ve accepted and met an academic challenge over a length of time working with highly involved teachers.”

Teachers and courses
Freal’s single course in AP calculus has grown into a two-semester sequence of higher math, and he’s added a section of AP statistics. Bethany Flint’s AP biology is so popular she’s added a second section, and Don Sayegh offers an AP physics course which is taught at the college level but for students not majoring in a physical science or engineering, something that’s required in most college degree programs.

Neil Nix, who is also the AP grant coordinator, teaches AP English literature and composition as well as an AP class on U.S. government and politics. Vivian Bleecker teaches AP English language and composition, and Dave Fakkema teaches an AP course on U.S. history. And there are others who will be teaching soon, like Mike Shappell who is developing an AP computer science course, or Don Lotz, one of the original teachers who is now on sabbatical.

In a class that exploits the possibilities for innovation in the AP program, art teacher Brian Smith has put together an AP studio art class.
All the other classes culminate in an end-of-the-term standardized test that is graded from one to five, lowest to highest. Most colleges will not accept an AP course for college credit unless the student gets a three or better.

Instead of a test, in Smith’s class students produce an art portfolio based on drawing, two dimensional design or three-dimensional design (such as a sculpture or pottery) and submit it for evaluation according to nationally developed standards. Each portfolio has three sections, one on quality, another on concentration as evidenced by an in-depth individualized project and a third on breadth in which the student demonstrates a range of experience.

Mike Dodd, Blaine school board president for the last two years, said that the board likes keeping the students who want to earn college credit in high school on the Blaine campus as opposed to letting those who qualify attend a community college out of town in the Running Start program.

“Aside from the fact that we keep the state money they generate here in Blaine, the kids get a better deal because the teachers work more closely with them. It’s a team effort, but at Whatcom, for example, no special effort is necessarily made for the running start students since they’re simply being allowed to attend regular classes at the college level,” Dodd said, “but here, if they don’t show up or something’s needed, teachers and staff will notice and do something about it.”