Budget squeezes JDHS AP courses

Posted: Sunday, May 25, 2003

Mindy Roberts, a junior at Juneau-Douglas High School, says an advanced-placement course in English language and composition revealed aspects of books in ways she never saw before.

She's counting on advanced-placement courses, through which high-scoring students can earn college credits, as a way to make college affordable. But Roberts couldn't get into the senior AP English course because one section was canceled.

Some parents and students are concerned tight school budgets will result in fewer advanced-placement classes at JDHS as administrators struggle to keep regular class sizes within reason.

JDHS will offer five AP courses next year, down from six this year and the 10 it potentially offers, including some that were new. One of two AP English sections was dropped, and AP courses in five other subjects were canceled altogether, triggering the concern.

"It troubles me to think the bottom's dropped out of a very powerful and strong program," said Casady Herding, who teaches AP English language and composition to juniors.

"I don't think I would have been able to get the stuff I got in there," said junior Natalie Webb, "from any other English class."

Advanced-placement courses let students who score high on a national test earn college credits in high school or skip introductory courses when they get to college.

College admissions officers look favorably on students who have taken AP courses, say officials from The College Board, the nonprofit organization that sets the curriculum and gives the tests.

JDHS Principal Deb Morse said she wants to keep enrollments in regular courses to about 30 students, and must schedule teachers' workloads to achieve that. In the past, courses in the core subjects of English and math have had 33 to 35 students.

Morse said at least 22 to 24 students must sign up for an AP class for it to be held, compared with 16 in the past.

JDHS also must absorb a reduction in staff time, and it will offer seven fewer sections of classes next year in general.

The school still will hold 28 advanced and AP classes in 18 subjects next year, Morse pointed out. They are open to all students. Courses the school designates as advanced aren't created by The College Board and don't lead to college credit.

The reduction in AP courses was "disappointing" but not the principal's fault, said social studies teacher Gary Lehnhart. When school budgets are designed for classes of 30 students, specialty programs are the first to go, he said.

"In this climate, what really happens is you get rid of anything that is unusual, anything that allows students to go after unique and enriching experiences, like AP courses," he said.

The reduction in course offerings is happening statewide, said Carl Rose, executive director of the Association of Alaska School Boards.

"What is happening is we've come through about 15 to 20 years of a lack of keeping pace in buying power (in education funding), and as a result we're eroding the class offerings for kids," he said. "The electives and the enrichment efforts are being reduced."

The advanced-placement program hasn't seen that trend nationwide, said Walt Jimenez, director of curriculum and assessment for The College Board. The number of students taking AP courses has risen about 12 percent annually in recent years, to about 938,000 students in 2002. At a time of growing concern about academic standards, schools use AP courses to raise the academic bar, Jimenez said from New York.

At JDHS, AP American history and American government classes were canceled because 11 and 14 students, respectively, registered for them. Meanwhile, it's common for sophomore world history classes at JDHS to have 32 to 34 students. Large classes are one reason students become disengaged with school and drop out, teachers said.

Assistant Principal Laury Scandling said no one factor drives decisions to cancel classes, but the school's overriding concern is to be as equitable as possible in class sizes.

"To simply look at AP in isolation from every other course we offer doesn't do justice to the other students we serve," she said.

But some AP students feel it's not fair to cancel the classes they learn the most in.

Many take the courses just for the challenge, not the college credit, students said. Nationally, about 70 percent of AP students take The College Board's test to be eligible for college credit.

"The new policy of requiring a minimum of 25 per class doesn't serve kids who want to give themselves challenges, in a helpful way," said Margo Waring, chairwoman of the parents committee at JDHS for extended-learning students. Extended learning refers to academically or artistically gifted students.

Next year, JDHS will have one section in AP English literature for seniors, English language and composition for juniors, calculus equal to the first half of a college course, calculus equal to the second half of a college course, and studio art.

A section of AP English was dropped, as were AP courses in biology, chemistry, physics, American government and American history. The school canceled the last five courses because too few students had registered for them, including six for physics and eight for biology.

Thirty-eight students registered for senior AP English, and the school intended to hold two sections. Instead, it canceled one section and let those students enroll in a British literature course or the other AP section, which now has 33 students. None of the extended-learning students were left out of the AP course, Morse said.

"Every year we've made these hard decisions and close classes," Principal Morse said in an interview. "I think this is the first time we had to make hard decisions on English classes."

George Gress, who co-chairs the English department, said crowding the AP literature class with 32 students and loading all the junior and senior English classes with 30 to 31 students has allowed the freshman and sophomore classes to have 27 to 28 students.

Even that is more than the 25 students most English teachers feel is the "maximum acceptable number to manage with the instruction required," he said.

Some advocates for advanced-placement courses say enrollments in basic courses are being swelled by students who fail the first time and have to retake them.

Herding, an English teacher, said she sees merit in the argument about allocating teachers to freshmen and sophomores, especially if the school's goal is to raise the passing rate on the state high school exit exam.

But it concerns her if the school has to allocate resources to students who fail because they don't care, while the school can't provide more choices to students who do care about their education.

"It's a culture of mediocrity," Herding said. "You are having to lower the standards of all to address the lower standards of a few in order to pull them through a system because that's what a system must do," she said.

Starting with the Class of 2004, students must pass state exams in reading, writing and math to receive a high school diploma. About 30 percent of JDHS sophomores who took the exam in spring 2002 failed either the reading or the math test.

In times of tight budgets, students also must make choices. Waring, the extended-learning advocate, said more students would register for AP courses if JDHS didn't schedule some of them for the same time slot.

The school tries to set the schedule so the courses that appeal to advanced students don't coincide with each other, but it's unavoidable that some do, Morse said.

AP physics and English were scheduled for the same time, for example. The concert band, advanced geometry and Japanese 1 - which might appeal to gifted students - also are held then.

But apart from the advanced-placement courses, Morse noted, the school offers 23 advanced classes as well as other classes that are challenging by their nature, such as physics, British literature and chemistry.

AP students said some counselors discourage kids from signing up for AP classes. And other students didn't register for AP classes for next year because they believed the courses would be canceled, junior Shannon Dore said.

"They make it really difficult to sign up for these classes. They don't advocate it," junior Natalie Webb said of school officials. "They scare you," she said, by saying there's a lot of homework in AP classes.

Brenda Overcast, a JDHS math teacher, said her son, a sophomore, realized "what learning was all about" in an AP calculus class. And he was motivated to study for a test that would gain him an advantage in college.

"For my son this was the first time I saw him shine and really put in the effort," she said.

Although her son didn't get into some of the AP courses he wanted next year, because they were full or canceled, Overcast said he can take other challenging courses.

But some students say AP classes are harder than advanced classes, and they cover different material. The AP English language and composition class for juniors analyzed writing in ways that students hadn't experienced in other classes, Dore said. Student Cayleigh Allen said it was more specific than any English class she had taken.

"I took it because I was not ever challenged in advanced classes," Dore said. "I felt the need for deeper analysis."

Eric Fry can be reached at efry@juneauempire.com.

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