Some students assume Donna Sinclair’s Advanced Placement studio art course is a breeze because it lacks the exhausting three-hour exam that concludes other AP classes.
Her students at Chantilly High School in Fairfax County know otherwise. They must produce a 24-piece portfolio, which consumes their days and nights, leaving no time for slacking off.
AP classes, like other college-level courses for high school students, are the ultimate academic challenge. Students slog through thick reading lists and lengthy exams because college admission offices use that as a measure of how ready they are for higher education.
AP courses in the arts are also difficult, but in a different way. Students are drawn to the classes because they are passionate about the subject. Art and music are a calling, not a course.
Sinclair, who has taught AP studio art at various schools since the mid-1980s, sees the class as a magnet for future Albert Einsteins.
“Many students have found that developing strong visualization skills enhances their learning experience in the sciences,” she said. “Ninety percent of Nobel science prize winners have also been artists.”
Most public high schools in the area have AP courses in the arts. The offerings include music, art history and studio art, which can consist of work in painting, ceramics, photography or other media.
Music theory teaches the theoretical bases of writing, reading and playing music, feeding several teenage obsessions.
“Some students who play instruments in garage bands and rock groups have taken theory to improve their skills as composers and gig musicians,” said Carla Ingram, who teaches AP music theory at Rockville’s Wootton High School.
“Music is woven into the fabric of our everyday lives, and for many students, music preferences are deeply personal and influenced by the wealth of experience each student brings to the classroom,” said Brian Bersh, chairman of the music department at Yorktown High School in Arlington County.
“Of all the AP courses I am currently taking, I would have to say that this class is by far my favorite,” Ari Elfasi, a music theory student at Wootton, said. “It’s not just another class for me. I can actually take what I learn and apply it to something that I do on a regular basis. It’s really something special.”
This region has a higher AP participation rate than any other in the country. That includes arts-related offerings, although AP arts courses have far fewer students than the big AP courses.
In 2011 nationally, 412,466 students took the AP English language and composition exam, 406,086 took the AP U.S. history exam and 255,357 the AP calculus AB exam. Only 18,124 took the AP music theory exam, which includes reading and listening to music; and 41,437 prepared portfolios for AP studio art, according to the College Board.
Some students lack the academic skills or interest for most AP offerings but enjoy AP art courses. The classes tap into different kinds of intelligence and enliven school for students who might otherwise see their studies as drudgery.
“This is my only AP course, but I’m sure if I had taken a non-arts AP, it would have been far more difficult,” said James Logan, a musician who takes AP music theory at Wootton. “Although I’m sure that if someone with no previous musical experience were to take this class, they would surely struggle. I like this class a lot.”
Jeff Pabotoy said he has a Hispanic student who has blossomed in his AP 3-D studio ceramics course at Yorktown.
“She is on the lower income bracket and did not speak a word of English prior to coming to Yorktown three years ago,” he said. “She still struggles with English, but she has flourished in this course and has become my top student.”