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Prince George's County high school opens AP courses to all

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By Jay Mathews
Sunday, September 26, 2010; 7:24 PM

Charles Hebert Flowers High School, one of Prince George's County's newer schools, has always set high standards for its students and seems to be meeting them. It is one of three high schools in the county with a science and technology program. In 2009, it met all federal targets for adequate yearly progress. Its graduation rate was 82 percent, well above the national average. Its 12th-grade passing rate was above 80 percent on state tests.

Yet, it was one of the few schools in the Washington area refusing to let average students challenge themselves in an Advanced Placement course. Students were told this year that AP English, biology, American history, calculus and most of the other college-level courses at the school were open only to those with at least a 3.0 grade point average. They also had to have written permission from a teacher.

In an Aug. 22 e-mail to honors and AP classes teachers, Flowers principal Helena Nobles-Jones emphatically endorsed this policy: "Please review last year's academic progress of students enrolled in your classes! Students with average grades can not be enrolled!!!! These classes, by PGCPS standard, should be offered to HIGH ACHIEVING students only!!!"

That policy was, I hasten to say, in sync with most of the country. A common view among U.S. high school educators is that some kids are not ready for such an academic challenge. They will get it in college, why rush? Yet, when they reach college, students who were allowed to take AP, even those who struggled, often are better prepared for higher education's tougher standards. About two-thirds of high school seniors go on to college each year, many are average students.

The view that AP is just for A and B students perplexes many educators in this region. Most area schools dropped such policies more than a decade ago. Administrators previously were reluctant to open AP courses at schools like Wakefield High in Arlington, where 48 percent of students are low income and presumably don't have the support of college-educated parents. Yet, Wakefield's participation and passing rates are now about three times as large as Flowers, where 32 percent of students are low income.

Flowers also has some hidden restrictions. One parent said her daughter was barred from AP statistics because she had not taken pre-calculus, although elsewhere the requirement is only Algebra II. As a result, the mother said, enrollment in AP statistics at Flowers dropped from 34 to nine students.

Flowers students' passing rate on AP exams has always been low, no more than 20 percent, but many veteran AP teachers say that students learn more than they would in a regular course, even if they flunk the AP exam, because the AP standards are so high. AP test results arrive too late to affect student grades.

Flowers' restrictive AP policy also seemed to me at odds with Prince George's Superintendent William R. Hite's emphasis on equity, access and effort in raising student achievement. When I asked schools spokesman Darrell Pressley about that, he said that county policy forbids grade-point requirements for AP. So what about the rules at Flowers?

He checked and called back to say Nobles-Jones had not known about the county's new policy and would immediately announce that anyone at Flowers could take AP. That is a quick turnaround, maybe too quick. It is hard to change the culture that fast. Administrators, teachers and counselors may still discourage some students from trying.

It is too late to get average Flowers students into AP this year, but next year I hope parents and students in the community will make sure the school is following both the letter and the spirit of the new rule. AP should be open to anyone who wants to work hard, no matter what was on their report card the year before.

For more Jay, go to washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

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