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.”

Where the jobs are

Chicago invests $12 million into expanding pathway to construction trades

PHOTO: PHOTO: Steve Hendershot / Chalkbeat
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel visits Prosser Career Academy Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018, to announce a $12 million investment in vocational education.

What happens when Mayor Rahm Emanuel headlines a pep rally in a sweltering, Northwest Side high-school gymnasium to promote a $12 million investment in vocational education?

Lots of HVAC jokes, for one thing. And some students fanning themselves with the signs they’d been given that read “Thank you” and “Mr. Mayor.”

As he makes rounds in the city touting his accomplishments  — after announcing Tuesday that he would not run for reelection in February — Emanuel was flanked Thursday morning by luminaries from Chicago Public Schools, area trade unions and employers such as ComEd. On Wednesday, he dropped in on a pre-kindergarten class to push his early-education initiative.

Thursday, there was also lots of enthusiasm about the city’s push to develop career and technical education curricula, to bolster economic opportunity in the neighborhoods.

Part of a $1 billion capital plan announced over the summer, the $12 million investment at Charles A. Prosser Career Academy will expand the school’s vocational training beyond its current emphasis on the hospitality industry to include construction trades including carpentry, electricity and, of course, HVAC.  

Many welcome such initiatives as a long time coming. Vocational preparation has been deemphasized in favor of college-preparatory programs, said Charles LoVerde, a trustee of a training center run by the Laborers’ International Union of North America. He’s glad to see the investment.

The city’s current construction trades program launched in 2016 at Dunbar Career Academy High in predominantly black Bronzeville. Prosser makes access easier for West Side students, including the predominantly Latino residents of Belmont Cragin, where it is located.

“Dunbar is a great program, but my kids are not going to go to Dunbar because it’s just too far — it would take them two hours to get there,” said 36th Ward Alderman Gilbert Villegas, who pushed Emanuel to launch Prosser’s CTE program.

Access is important because CTE offerings are among the district’s most in-demand programs, according to a report released last month by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. Demand is not even across demographics, however, with vocational programs more popular among low-performing students, students from economically isolated elementary schools, and black students, according to the report.

Almost one in five seats at district high schools focus on vocational education. But Dunbar’s — and now Prosser’s — focus on the construction trades has Emanuel and Villegas excited, because Chicago’s construction boom means that jobs are readily available.

“There’s not a building trade in Chicago — a carpenter, an electrician, a bricklayer, a painter, an operating engineer — that has anybody left on the bench,” Emanuel told the crowd at Prosser.

Villegas sketched out an idealized, full-career path for a graduate of the new program — one that includes buying a home and raising a family in Belmont Cragin. “I see it as a pipeline that would extend our ability to maintain the Northwest Side as middle class,” Villegas said.

The investment in Prosser comes as part of a broader, national effort to invest in career-technical education. In July, Congress overwhelmingly reauthorized  a national $1.1 billion program for job training and related programs.

The new program at Prosser not only will give more students access to training in the building trades, but also will provide proximity to some labor partners. The Laborers’ International Union of North America operates a training center less than a mile from Prosser, where students will have a chance to learn and also visit job sites, LoVerde said.

He said that college-track programs also have their place, but career education presents a clear path to a steady income.

“This gives [unions] a focused path to recruit and find students who are looking for a different path,” LoVerde said. “Becoming a career construction laborer is a job for life.”

future of work

Tennessee approves its first-ever computer science standards for K-8 schools

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post

With regional jobs related to computer science going unfilled, Tennessee soon will introduce academic standards designed specifically to strengthen those skills beginning in elementary school.

The state Board of Education gave final approval Friday to Tennessee’s first-ever computer science standards for elementary and middle schools. The benchmarks will reach classrooms in the fall of 2019.

In the works for a year, they’ll replace computer technology standards that were last revised in 2011.

State officials say the current standards don’t capture the critical components of computer science, a growing field with jobs especially in healthcare, transportation, and banking. In 2015 across Tennessee, for instance, only a third of the 90,000 jobs posted for workers in IT, or information technology, were filled.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the employment gap represents a huge opportunity for students as the state also emphasizes instruction in science, technology, engineering, and math, also known as STEM.

“We don’t have enough students actually interested in computer science because they don’t know what it is,” she told members of the board earlier this year. McQueen cited research showing that 50 percent of people who pursue STEM careers trace their interest to exposure in first or second grade.

“Getting kids interested really does matter at those very, very early ages,” she said.

For elementary schools, the new standards will focus on introducing students to the basics of computer systems and programs — and helping them learn about safe and responsible device practices, such as protecting private information and using passwords securely.

For middle schools, students will study computer-related calculations and information-processing skills used to create computer programs. They’ll also discuss “digital citizenship,” which covers how to interact safely with people and content online. And they’ll explore career opportunities related to computer science.

Except for instruction in coding and computer programming — which will be taught as a stand-alone class — the skills are to be integrated into existing core classes in English, math, science and social studies. They’re “things our teachers are already doing,” said Melissa Haun, math coordinator for the Tennessee Department of Education, of most of the new computer science standards.

“We’re not asking teachers to do more things or give them a heavier workload. We’re asking them to be aware of the standards and be deliberate in how they can enhance their instruction with technology because we are in a very very digital world that moves very fast,” Haun told the state board in April.

"We don’t have enough students actually interested in computer science because they don’t know what it is."Candice McQueen, commissioner of education

School districts will have discretion on how to add coding and computer programming instruction to the mix. Many school systems already are piloting such curriculums after investing in digital devices in the ongoing transition to computerized state testing.

McQueen said coding represents “one of the most underutilized opportunities that we have.”

“If you can get kids to think like a coder and the problem-solving that occurs with that, … you can start to inspire them around opportunities,” she said. “That coding skill set, and the language of coding, opens up about 75 percent of jobs that they may have never thought about before.”

Computer science marks the latest new standards for Tennessee, which has or is in the process of revamping benchmarks in all four core areas of instruction.

New English and math standards start their second year this fall, new science standards are about to begin, and new ones for social studies reach classrooms in the fall of 2019, the same year of the first-ever standards for computer science.