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Access to Advanced Placement varies across PA

By Christine Manganas, Point Park News Service:

Cumberland Valley High School in Cumberland County housed 2,645 students in the 2013-2014 school year and offered 26 Advanced Placement (AP) courses ranging from AP Chinese to AP Economics.

Two-hundred miles away in Beaver County, Freedom Area Senior High School’s enrollment is about one-third as big as Cumberland Valley. The 467 enrolled students have the option of three AP classes.

Although Northern Potter High School in rural Potter County compares to Freedom with a low enrollment of 251, they offer no AP opportunity to their students.

Cumberland Valley High School offered 26 Advanced Placement courses in the 2013-2014 school year. Photo courtesy of www.pennlive.com.
Cumberland Valley High School offered 26 Advanced Placement courses in the 2013-2014 school year. Photo courtesy of www.pennlive.com.

These schools are examples of how the AP system, which was built on the notion of offering opportunity to the best and brightest students in Pennsylvania, in reality, foists unequal opportunity to these three schools and all others in the state of Pennsylvania based on size and wealth. Those students who do not have access end up with lower grade point averages (GPA) and, in some instances, that can affect admissions into colleges and universities. It also has caused calls for a state-run cyber school to fill the voids and provide equal opportunity.

According to the 10th Annual AP Report to the Nation, “All students who are academically ready for the rigor of AP – no matter their location, background, or socioeconomic status – have the right to fulfill that potential. Last year, however, hundreds of thousands of prepared students in the country either did not take a course in an available AP subject for which they had the potential or attended a school that did not offer a course in the subject.”

Although some schools are struggling with their students applying themselves and enrolling in the offered AP courses, the issue is that many do not, or cannot, provide their students with that opportunity. This not only has far reaching outcomes in education, but students from rich districts with multiple AP offerings get more opportunities to raise grades and secure admission to the best colleges and universities before those from poor districts.

“The cause is the matter of haves and have nots. Poor, rural small districts are at a big disadvantage due to many factors such as funding, staffing and the list keeps on going,” Northern Potter High School Principal Scott Graham said.

AP courses offer college level classes and curriculum to high school students. With a total of 34 courses to choose from, schools then have the ability to offer as many as they want or need to the student body, according to the College Board. Depending on what the school offers, the students then have the opportunity to qualify to take an AP course and apply their knowledge to secondary education at a high school level.

Impact on rural districts

Graham has been with Northern Potter School District for eight years and there has never been an opportunity for his students to take an AP course. According to Graham, the district has lost a quarter of its staff since his employment as high school principal.

“In rural areas like this, we are always in a recession, but it’s just different degrees,” Graham said. “We don’t have extra cushions in the budget like larger, urban schools, so it comes down to funding, and funding pays staffing.”

Graham and the district had to make a choice between offering AP classes and dual enrollment because of funding, and they chose the latter. Dual enrollment involves students at the high school level participating in college courses. In Northern Potter’s case, they are connected to the University of Pittsburgh Bradford’s campus, and they encourage students to get college credits this way.

Graham also said that his high school offers courses that they personally weigh in order to encourage the students to motivate and dedicate themselves to tougher courses.

Forbes Road Junior Senior High School in Fulton County and East Forest Junior Senior High School in Forest County are among the schools that do not offer AP courses. In the 2013-2014 school year, both schools had fewer than 200 students, which therefore affects their AP opportunity.

Wilkinsburg Senior High School in Allegheny County, Union High School in Clairton County and Oswayo Valley High School in McKean County are three schools that show that disparity is all over the state. Disparity stretches from urban to rural school districts, and it affects students within these classrooms.

A breakdown of Senator Joseph Scarnati’s of Pennsylvania's 25th District. A total of 11 of his schools offer no AP opportunity to their students.
A breakdown of Pennsylvania’s 25th Sentate District. Eleven schools offer no AP opportunity to their students.

Graham is not alone when it comes to running a school in a rural area. State Sen. Joseph Scarnati of Pennsylvania’s 25th District has close to 40 high schools within eight counties, one being Northern Potter. Eleven of those schools do not give students any opportunity to take an AP course. Scarnati declined to speak about the schools within his district, but released a statement through e-mail.

“Across Pennsylvania the educational needs of each county and school district are unique,” Scarnati said. “Advanced Placement courses provide strong educational opportunities for many students to further their knowledge in a particular area and can be a great asset, especially for those who choose to continue their education at a college or university.  It is important for school districts to determine how each of these courses could benefit their students.”

Sen. Lloyd Smucker of Pennsylvania’s 13th District is currently the chair of the Senate Education Committee. Out of the 17 school districts that he oversees in Lancaster County, Columbia Senior High School and Phoenix Academy do not offer AP courses. In contrast, Garden Spot Senior High School offers a total of 17 courses to more than 900 students, even though it resides in the same county as those that offer none.

“More than 50 percent of schools in Pennsylvania are considered to be ‘small’ or ‘rural’ based upon population and square footage,” Smucker said when comparing his district to others in the state.

Funding and availability for courses is one issue Smucker noted, but student interest, teacher availability and school size also weigh in on opportunity.

In order to offer an AP course, a school must also have the staff to train and certify for the position. If available, the selected staff member must attend a workshop, summer course and/or conference before they teach any AP course, according to College Board. The districts therefore must have the funds to send their teachers to these events, which Northern Potter and others throughout the state do not possess.

Looking across in Washington, Pa. at Peters Township High School, biology teacher Dana Kobeda said that the smaller and low-income districts do not necessarily have the foundation needed to provide this opportunity to students. In the 2013-2014 school year, 1,460 students were enrolled at Peters, ranging from grades 9-12, and the students had the opportunity to choose from a total of 18 courses.

Peters Township High School is located in Washington County and offers 18 AP courses to its students.
Peters Township High School is located in Washington County and offers 18 AP courses to its students. Photo courtesy of WPXI-TV.

“In science especially, the problem is funding the lab equipment because it is really expensive,” Kobeda said. “A school may be able to fund an AP English class pretty cheaply, but to offer an AP science, you are required to run certain labs with certain equipment, so we may be able to afford that, but another school may not be able to.”

Allegheny County is home to a variety of districts. Inner city schools, such as Perry High School had a larger enrollment of 761 students, but only offered four AP courses in the 2013-2014 school year. Quaker Valley High School had only 614 enrolled students, but still offered 21 courses.

Opportunity for college admission suffers

Another advantage of taking AP courses is the opportunity for students to receive an inflated GPA because of the extra weight of the course, whether they take and pass the test at the end of the course or not. Colleges and universities take into account not only a GPA, which can increase because of AP, but also the amount of AP classes that were taken in high school as a whole.

With these classes carrying extra weight, the students who do not receive this opportunity suffer. Not only do some schools not offer the opportunity to enroll in these courses, but also some students who do have access choose not to take the exam in order to earn the college credit because they still receive the inflated GPA.

“If it’s 5.0 vs. 4.0 it is definitely going to boost opportunity,” Kobeda said. “I think also, on a transcript, if they see AP scores they may see and assume a more serious and dedicated student.”

Jessica Sanfilippo, 21, is a 2011 graduate from Peters Township and now attends Duquesne University for Occupational Therapy. Between her junior and senior year, she enrolled in three AP courses including: AP United States History, AP Biology and AP European History. With guidance from these three courses, she was able to graduate with a 3.6 GPA, and still found the courses beneficial without taking the AP exam.

“My school district had a ton of AP courses that I found valuable in having the opportunity to prepare for college, to challenge myself academically, and also to help boost my GPA,” Sanfilippo said.

Gavin Wiseman, a graduate of Pittsburgh’s Creative and Performing Arts 6-12 (CAPA), had less than half of the opportunity that Peters Township and other high school students had when it came to AP courses. CAPA offers eight different AP classes, but Wiseman did not have the opportunity to take any of these eight courses.

“I remember signing up for AP Psychology, and there ended up being too many students enrolled,” Wiseman said. “Because of that, they did an AP class for the students with higher grade averages and a non-AP psychology course for those with lower grade point averages.”

Cara Masset, the director of University News at the University of Pittsburgh, declined to speak about the school’s application process, but did provide some information about admissions through e-mail.

“The University of Pittsburgh uses a holistic admissions review process for admissions to the University. This means that we take many factors into account, including Advanced Placement courses completed by applicants as well as applicants’ responses to short-answer questions, letters of recommendation when provided, intended fields of study, other relevant coursework, etc.,” Masset said.

Increase in the 2015-2016 education budget

According to Smucker, Pennsylvania ranks sixth in the nation on total spending on education and 11th in per-pupil spending. Gov. Tom Wolf released a 2015-2016 proposed education budget in which the state would provide 50 percent of public education funding, up from 35 percent, according to an email from Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera.

“Gov. Wolf’s plan also emphasizes equity so that school districts with smaller local tax bases, which may have been hurt more than wealthy districts under the reductions in the past few state budgets, receive a greater share of funds in upcoming years,” Rivera said. “As a former practitioner, I believe the flexibility of the governor’s proposed investment in education will be useful in allowing some school districts to reinvest in AP courses.”

On Apr. 21, the Senate Education Committee passed a bill, sponsored by the Minority Chair of the committee, Sen. Andy Dinniman, regarding the study of advanced placement courses and dual enrollment with the goal of expanding and standardizing them.

“It is setting up a group of really good qualified people that are going to thoroughly review the whole process to find out where it is failing specifically in which groups and what locations in Pennsylvania,” said Lisa Felix, a representative from Dinniman’s office. “The task force has a year to do its investigation on how to improve it and how to make it more applicable.”

New budgets and SB 104 are working towards the improvement and expansion of AP courses, but a state-run cyber school to offer AP classes to every district, no matter size or wealth, has also been proposed.

Idea of a state run cyber school

Jack Connors, a former member of the Avonworth School Board, where the high school offers nine AP courses, has worked for years to try to make the issue of unequal opportunity known.

“It was obviously uneven to me, subsequently because of School Performance Profile and the information was readily available to find out how many AP courses every school offered,” Connors said.

This idea of an online or state-run cyber school was presented to Smucker, and he said that he welcomes cooperation. With a strong desire for every student to get equal and high quality education, he would support added-dollars for education.

“Online courses afford students many opportunities that were never available before the dawn of this technology,” Smucker said.

 

Jack Connors, a former member of the Avonworth School Board:

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