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AP for More Spells Better Things for All

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Dear Extra Credit:

I read with interest your article about the benefits of AP classes for all ["Is AP for All a Formula for Failure?," June 8]. I am the AP Physics teacher at Glen Burnie High School and believe that it is a good idea.

I come from a background in nuclear engineering and "retired" to teaching about seven years ago. Having low performers in class does them a world of good. The curriculum is tough and can't be significantly watered down. I teach to the "smart" kids with the firm conviction that even the table scraps picked up by the lower-performing students are a better meal than what they're accustomed to.

Further, opening these classes to essentially everybody has a benefit that you didn't mention. In a difficult economy, schools with a large percentage of low performers might more easily rationalize cutting high-level classes because of low enrollments. This could lock out the kids competing for selective college spaces with students from districts and schools that are more affluent. I am gratified that this is not the case in Anne Arundel County.

When I came to teaching, I had AP Physics enrollments in the low single digits. Because of the support I received, I now offer both levels of AP Physics (B and C) and have healthy enrollments for both (in the mid-teens). I have also been allowed to open the lower-level class to first-year physics students with sufficient mathematical preparation.

Although a few of my students do not pass the AP exam, simply having the class open on a yearly basis has allowed me to prepare students for enrollment and success at some of the best engineering schools in the world, including Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Carnegie Mellon and even our own University of Maryland.

Michael Willis

Anne Arundel County

I have learned much over the years about AP from teachers just like you. Keep it up, please.

Dear Extra Credit:

Your Aug. 20 column ["Student Trying to Get Ahead Gets Left Behind"] makes me want to scream, "Home-school, people, home-school!" My fifth-grader tested post-high school in all subjects except math. She receives math at her level and works as far ahead as necessary in other subjects. This also works for kids who need to work at a slower pace.

Michelle Cox

Woodbridge

Persistent readers of this column know that I long ago despaired of public schools' being capable of doing much for students way ahead of the curve, such as yours. It requires too many special skills that are too hard to find. My solution was for parents of such children to pool their resources for special classes or programs after school, on weekends or in the summer. Home schooling, I thought, would also work, although I have not expressed that view as clearly as you have. I wonder if others have made the same choice you did for the same reasons.

Dear Extra Credit:

In your Aug. 20 column, you said that Alexandria has gotten an exemption to start school before Labor Day because of anticipated winter snow closings or innovative practices that need an early start. Only two elementaries in Alexandria start early. Most start Sept. 8. Two years ago, the secondary schools had a temporary exemption to start early because of the move to the new high school. Students and teachers loved ending the year in May.

As an AP teacher, I would love starting school two weeks earlier. The May testing date is the same for my students as for students who have two, three or sometimes four extra weeks to prepare. At some point, I have to stop testing in AP Stat just to finish the material. After the AP exam, the students must take classroom tests on the untested material. But I find the students shutting down after the exam.

Sally Miller

Alexandria

Thank you for correcting my misleading statement in that column. You raise an intriguing AP issue. Here is another view:

Dear Extra Credit:

About the school start date in Virginia, I wonder if there has been a comparison of scoring on the AP exams. Starting after Labor Day means our kids get two weeks less than many of their peers to prepare for the exams. I'd think extra instructional time should lead to better preparation.

My bigger issue is what comes after these exams. The end of the year drags on for our students. They have more than a month after AP exams, and it becomes mind numbing. I know that theoretically a good teacher should be able to motivate kids with interesting work, but the reality seems to be that it is very difficult. This is particularly true for seniors who have other things on their minds after college choices have been made.

Our new principal at T.C. Williams High added a senior experience last year, which I think is a great idea. But only a few kids were able to participate, and the problem is broader than the senior class. A few years back, our students started before Labor Day because of construction schedules and ended the year around Memorial Day. It was fantastic.

Ellen Balis

Alexandria

A few years ago, I was an informal adviser to a Long Island high school student, Amanda Fiscina, who became an Intel Science Talent Search national semifinalist by answering your question about the effect of early starts on AP success. I am sad to inform you that there was little correlation between high AP scores and starting school before Labor Day. But getting rid of that dead time in late May and early June makes sense to me. You and Ms. Miller should circulate a petition.

Please send your questions, along with your name, e-mail or postal address and telephone number, to Extra Credit, The Washington Post, 526 King St., Suite 515, Alexandria, Va. 22314. Or e-mail extracredit@washpost.com.

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