This occurred mostly because of desperation, not academic ambition. When Trani became the principal of Corbett’s high school in 2004, he and the superintendent at the time decided the only way to save the district from oblivion, because of declining state funds and enrollment, was to use AP to attract students from neighboring districts.
Over the years, a few school board members have complained that AP is too difficult and hurts kids. Trani, 52, has refused to give up. That has enhanced the school’s reputation so much that it is unlikely ever to go back to where it was.
When Corbett first required in 2005 that every student take at least seven AP courses, an AP English teacher told Trani he was setting up students to fail. Three years later in a follow-up memo, the same teacher confessed he was wrong: “Most of those who initially struggle are, by the end of the course, light-years ahead of where they might have been. . . . I thought that students would come to me in tears. . . . Nope. Not a peep.”
Almost every Corbett student takes at least 10 AP courses. Although report card grades do not depend on the results from AP tests, 65 percent of June’s 84 graduating seniors passed at least one of the three-hour AP exams, nearly three times the national average.
“When the school was half this size my first year, it had more than 200 out-of-school suspensions,” Trani said. “Now . . . we might have five or six out-of-school suspensions a year. . . . We expect school to be school, and kids rise to that expectation.”
Budget cuts forced Corbett to adopt a four-day week long before Trani arrived. AP teachers adjust with two-hour Friday “events,” instruction mixed with pizza, on a day when officially there are no classes. Administrators also teach. Trani does AP chemistry.
Corbett this year is No. 16 on my annual Challenge Index list of the nation’s most demanding schools. All schools above it are charters or magnets, making it the most challenging neighborhood school in America. It is an intriguing surprise, although not necessarily a role model. Its history has been so influenced by peculiar state politics and daring leadership that it is hard to see how any other rural schools could match it.
Corbett is only 20 miles east of the heart of Portland but cannot by law subdivide land for more housing. Its key industries are cabbage, tourism and providing land to well-off people my age so they can enjoy gorgeous Columbia River views until they die.
At the beginning, parents got permission from the districts they lived in to send their kids to Corbett. To the surprise of Trani’s critics, they liked a program that began with required AP human geography and AP environmental science in ninth grade.
The neighboring districts later decided they needed those funds, so they stopped permitting transfers. Trani and his superintendent established a charter school that could take outsiders without permission. When the charter began to give its teachers more pay and its students free iPads, unlike the regular school, the outcry led the superintendent to leave. Trani succeeded him. The board closed the charter, but outsiders still poured in because of a new state open-access law. The district has 1,195 students, twice the enrollment of when Trani arrived. About half live elsewhere.
Only two school board members responded to my request for comment. One declined to let me publish his opinion. The other, David Gorman, praised the program for raising “academic expectations on all students, including those like myself who preferred to skate through high school doing the bare minimum.”
Steve Brown, publisher of three community newspapers in the area, said at Corbett, “students are being challenged and the district is turning out graduates who are well-prepared to take the next steps in their lives.”
Corbett has deepened its curriculum with a new AP capstone seminar on analyzing complex issues, required for all sophomores. Some parents of students with learning disabilities have embraced the higher standards. The portion of special education students has grown from 5 percent to 14 percent. Twenty percent of Corbett students are from low-income families.
Oops. The state just canceled the open-access policy. What will Corbett do? Trani’s board majority has proved itself as tough and resourceful as he is. It plans to register the entire district as a charter, so outsiders can still come to the best little schoolhouse in Oregon.