AP in the City: District Students Rise to the Challenge

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

On Friday, more than 1 million high school students completed an annual two-week ritual of stress, late nights and high hopes: the AP exams. Seventy of them were my students, who have labored hard over eight months with hours of nightly homework, after-school and weekend review sessions, and seemingly endless tests and essays.

My students are unusual Advanced Placement candidates, because they are all African American and because they go to school in one of Washington's poorest neighborhoods. Even more unusual is the fact that some of them took two or three AP exams this year and will have the opportunity to graduate from high school with up to six AP credits.

The AP program was founded half a century ago with the goal of improving education in America, and, in many respects, it has done exactly that. Sure, AP courses provide high school students with college credit and impressive transcripts, but I believe that their most significant impact has been to raise our expectations for curricula, for teachers and, therefore, for students.

In September 2005, when I started teaching history at Friendship Collegiate Academy, a public charter school on Minnesota Avenue NE, I was astonished to find that most 10th-graders could not locate the continents on a map, much less tell me anything about their history. If I had not been asked to teach AP world history to these children, I never would have believed that they were capable of doing college-level work. I would have underestimated them, perhaps the cruelest crime a teacher can commit.

Their lack of knowledge may have seemed especially severe to me because before coming to Friendship I taught at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County. TJ is one of the top schools in the country. The faculty is exceptional. My students were brilliant, creative and intellectually curious; they were also mostly white and Asian, and mostly from middle- and upper-middle-class families.

As I've gotten to know my students at Friendship, I've come to realize that they, too, are brilliant. They didn't know where the continents are because they didn't have the benefit of a high-quality education before coming to Friendship. Instead of being taught to think, they typically spent years learning to copy notes, learning to churn out meaningless homework and being told that good penmanship is all a good student needs. These are smart children who were rarely pushed intellectually. Many of them were hungry for a challenge. AP courses are providing that challenge.

It is no exaggeration to say that AP is transforming our school. Because of the commitment of parents, teachers and administrators, our students are taking -- and passing -- AP exams. They are also receiving scholarships and winning local and regional competitions with students from elite schools. Much of this excellence is tied to our AP program, which is constantly forcing us to raise our standards.

However, AP is not a panacea. Schools that focus on AP, such as TJ and Friendship, must walk a fine line. Because most AP courses are broad surveys, they are great at giving students the "big picture" of a field, and they help students develop strong analytical skills. However, for students to put all this knowledge into context, it is important that they have in-depth experiences, too -- weeks or months spent on a novel, research project or historical topic. AP courses typically don't give students time for that. All of us who have a say in our children's education need to make sure that AP courses are balanced with opportunities for in-depth study.

Over the past 50 years, AP courses have created exceptional educational opportunities for millions of Americans. Now, let's push all of our children to reach their potential and to learn in ways that are both broad and deep.

-- Eric Tipler


The writer teaches AP world history and psychology at Friendship Collegiate Academy, a public charter school in Northeast Washington. His e-mail address ismr.tipler@gmail.com.

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