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How one tiny high school hacked Advanced Placement classes

Paonia High brings college-level coursework to rural students by partnering with its neighbors.

 

If you ask Colby Simpson, one of 35 seniors at Paonia High School, how many Advanced Placement classes he’s taken, he has to shuffle through a long mental list. He definitely took AP Biology, and is taking AP Calculus and Physics, but did he take AP U.S. History? He thinks for a moment to recall.

That’s not a problem his oldest brother, Patrick, now 31, experienced: There were no AP classes at Paonia High when the elder Simpson sibling attended 15 years ago. With only 16 teachers, training faculty to teach nationally certified AP classes, and recruiting enough students to make them worthwhile, seemed unattainable for the tiny Colorado school.

Eight students from Paonia High School virtually attend an AP U.S. History class in Cedaredge.
Brooke Warren/High Country News

That changed in 2011, when the Colorado Education Initiative (CEI), an education advocacy and research organization, launched the Colorado Legacy Schools project. The program funded innovative ways to increase the number and diversity of students taking AP classes.

Paonia High School was among those that enrolled — albeit in an unusual way. On its own, Paonia couldn’t pull off any more AP classes. So instead of simply applying for funds to train its own teachers and subsidize test fees, Paonia High teamed up with two nearby schools, rearranging bell schedules and setting up videoconference classrooms to more than triple their collective AP offerings. It’s a promising model for rural, resource-limited schools trying to bring more college-prep opportunities to their few students.

Nationwide, rural schools like Paonia offer fewer advanced classes than urban or suburban schools, where, at least in Colorado, more students mean more state money for education resources. Nearly half of rural school districts in the U.S. have no secondary students enrolled in Advanced Placement courses, compared with only 5 percent of suburban schools and 3 percent of urban schools. Suburban and urban students also outperform rural students in AP classes. This means fewer rural students leave high school having experienced a college-level class, or having received the college credit that comes with passing a final AP exam. As a result, rural students are at a disadvantage in the hunt for college admissions and scholarships. 

The Colorado Legacy Schools project aims to change that unfortunate math. The program, a spinoff of the Texas-based National Math and Science Initiative’s College Readiness Program, is intended to reach kids who historically have opted out of AP classes, where seats are filled by mostly white and affluent students. In 2010, the year before the program started, 73 percent of Colorado’s AP students were white, despite white students comprising only 57 percent of the overall school population. Hispanic students, who accounted for 32 percent of the student body, made up just 15 percent of AP students.

Although that racial divide affects schools throughout the state, rural schools face an additional challenge: Students of all races don’t take AP classes because, in many cases, there simply aren’t any.

That lack of opportunity harms many promising rural students. About half of all students who have the potential to pass a final AP exam based on their pre-SAT scores don’t ever take an AP course, said Greg Hessee, director of the Legacy Schools program for CEI. Hessee wanted to change that dynamic.

As it turns out, a little money and some smart marketing go a long way. Starting in 2011, schools used the Legacy Schools grant to offer incentives. Teachers received $100 for every student who passed the end-of-semester exam, and passing students earned the same payout per test.

The grant, which now operates in 47 schools statewide, also relies on an aggressive recruiting campaign. By showing videos, holding assemblies, and visiting classrooms, school staff have tried to change the perception of Advanced Placement courses — from something that just the “smart” kids do, to classes for anyone who wants to graduate college. Statewide, AP classes are more ethnically diverse now than before the program started. Hispanic students, though still underrepresented in AP classrooms, now make up one in five AP students, compared to just one in 10 back in 2004

Critics of this approach worry that if more students take rigorous classes, teachers will water down the curriculum. The evidence so far suggests otherwise. Schools using the CEI grant have seen an average of 70 percent higher enrollment in AP classes in the first year, and a nearly equal jump — 65 percent — in qualifying scores, according to Hessee. And students who take an AP course through the grant are more than twice as likely to attend and persist through their first year of college.

“It turns out that the kids who are being overlooked have almost the same potential as the kids who are not being overlooked,” Hessee said.

CEI’s grant has boosted AP programs in many rural communities. Delta High School went from two AP courses to nine, and Alamosa more than doubled the number of AP exams they administered. But no school has been more creative than tiny Paonia High, which, in Hessee’s words, “hacked” the system to make it work for their needs. 

Paonia’s approach, which involves sharing courses with Hotchkiss High, 10 miles down the road, and Cedaredge, about 30 miles away, requires meticulous coordination. Each year, Karla Head, the assistant principal at Paonia High School who oversees the AP program, calls her colleagues in the other schools to schedule their shared classes. Paonia’s AP students attend U.S. History, which is housed in Cedaredge, by teleconference, and carpool to Hotchkiss for Physics. Today, 66 of Paonia’s 153 students take at least one AP class, even though the Legacy Schools grant now offers minimal support beyond continued teacher training and Saturday study sessions. Paonia’s culture and approach to AP classes has changed, creating a self-sustaining program and allowing CEI to back off. 

For Paonia, as for many rural communities, the need for rigorous AP courses has never been more pressing. The town’s economy, once dependent on ranching, farming and coal-mining, has been thrown into upheaval by the coal industry’s collapse; last year, one of the area’s biggest mines suffered huge layoffs. The loss of blue-collar jobs means that Paonia students will likely need college degrees to earn the stable incomes their parents once received.

Karla Head, assistant principal at Paonia High School, has worked to provide more AP classes to her students.
Brooke Warren/High Country News

In the absence of mining jobs, Paonia High School is trying to offer more of the classes students will need to succeed, both in college and in the industries that might spring up to replace coal. In addition to AP, that includes vocational classes at the local community college and courses on solar energy installation.

“A rural kid needs the same opportunities for advancement and exposure to the opportunities in the world around them as our urban and suburban kids,” said Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance. “How are we going to get economic development going in our rural communities if we don’t have a workforce ready, willing and able to step into those jobs?” 

What Paonia figured out, according to Hessee, is a philosophy more rural schools could learn from. Collectively, these three rural schools can provide the same variety of opportunities their students want and need, and that urban students already have. 

Colby Simpson, the Paonia High senior, feels lucky and proud to attend one of the few rural schools that offer so many AP options. He focuses almost exclusively on his AP classes, in hopes that he’ll be able to take a lighter load in college. They’re intense, he said, but he knows these tougher classes will help him even if his exam scores aren’t good enough to earn him college credit.

“That’s what they kind of preach to us,” he said. “They say, ‘I know it’s hard, and I know we’re pushing you, but we’re preparing you for college.’” 

This story is part of the "Small towns, big change" project through the Solutions Journalism Network.

This story is part of the "Small towns, big change" project through the Solutions Journalism Network.