Oklahoma City Public Schools expands its advanced placement program 

click to enlarge Principal, Mylissa Hall, and two AP students pose for a photo at Southeast High School on Wednesday, September 21, 2016 in Oklahoma City. - EMMY VERDIN
  • Emmy Verdin
  • Principal, Mylissa Hall, and two AP students pose for a photo at Southeast High School on Wednesday, September 21, 2016 in Oklahoma City.

Convincing Southeast High School student Heidy Briones to enroll in advanced placement courses was easy. Before she began her freshman year, Briones asked a recent graduate how they secured college admission.

The answer was simple: Enroll in the high school’s advanced placement courses.

“If you have someone you look up to in high school, you will take the same path,” said Briones, now a senior, as she explained her approach to high school academics.

By taking advanced placement, or AP, courses, students earn both high school and college credit as they experience higher academic rigor. AP classes stand out on undergraduate applications, and exam scores can translate into college credits, potentially saving students and their families thousands of dollars in tuition costs.

In her fourth year of high school, Briones’ high school transcript lists AP courses in European history, Spanish, literature, U.S. government and art. Briones also participates in a concurrent enrollment program with Oklahoma City Community College, which allows highschoolers to take college classes.

While Briones is still months away from earning her high school diploma, she said she feels like a college student.

A year from now, she will most likely be a college sophomore.

“I think I have more stress than an actually college student,” said Briones, who is a student council member and volunteers at The Children’s Hospital at OU Medical Center. “I have college applications to fill out, and I am trying to find college scholarships while doing college work.”

Reaching more students

U.S. high school teachers have taught AP, a program of the College Board, for more than a half-century, and Oklahoma City Public Schools (OKCPS) sites have offered AP courses for decades.

Two years ago, when Katherine Hughes joined OKCPS as senior executive director of prekindergarten through 12th-grade schools, she brought extensive AP knowledge and a desire to revamp the district’s program.

In 2009, the College Board recognized the longtime educator for success in expanding the Midwest City-Del City School District’s AP program. Over four years, AP course offerings expanded from 14 to 21 and AP student exam numbers doubled. The growth helped Hughes earn the 2009 AP Award for the Southwest Region.

The award hangs in her OKCPS office. Hughes is determined to replicate that success with the state’s largest school district. Hughes said there are many academic and economic benefits for high school students who participate in AP classes and exams. After successfully completing an AP course, they have the confidence, motivation and competence to enter college, which correlates with the district’s goal to get students college ready.

“When everyone truly understands that giving students this kind of learning experience is only going to make students and schools better, that’s when the culture truly starts to change,” Hughes said.

Improving the college readiness culture is a two-pronged approach, she said. District officials added more AP courses at school sites and are working to establish AP programs at schools without them. Through a partnership with Equal Opportunity Schools, school leaders are identifying and actively recruiting students, including minority and low-income students, who previously missed AP enrollment opportunities.

The Seattle nonprofit provides district leadership with a framework to close AP enrollment gaps.

High school students are polled annually about career interests, academic goals and what keeps them from taking AP courses. Each student also is asked to share the name of a “trusted adult.”

Counselors review surveys and academic records to determine which students are eligible for the program. The trusted adult is asked to speak with them about challenging himself or herself in an AP course.

One year after following the Equal Opportunity Schools plan, the district reports the AP program grew by 275 students. Last spring, 1,718 students participated in the program, taking 1,882 AP exams across 24 subjects, College Board data shows.

click to enlarge Daisy Barrios and Heidy Bariones, Southeast High School AP students, discuss their AP classes on Wednesday, September 21, 2016 in Oklahoma City. - EMMY VERDIN
  • Emmy Verdin
  • Daisy Barrios and Heidy Bariones, Southeast High School AP students, discuss their AP classes on Wednesday, September 21, 2016 in Oklahoma City.

Star boost

Star Spencer is a northeast Oklahoma County high school with fewer than 450 students, a majority of which qualify for free or reduced school meals. It previously offered few advanced level courses and students welcomed the district’s new approach.

Star Spencer now offers four AP courses: U.S. history, literature, government and English language. Last year, the school offered three courses.

Student Adriana Wright, the daughter of an OKCPS teacher, knew about AP courses and their advantages, including college credit, before Star Spencer unveiled plans to add them. With hopes of attending a service academy or an out-of-state university, Wright sought to build a college application that could contend with students across the country.

Wright said she believes she learned more by taking the AP history course than students enrolled in the school’s honors history class.

“We started at Pangea and made it to current time all within the school year,” Wright said. “We had a ton of information to go over and a lot of work, but I loved that class.”

Wright said she wanted to take more AP classes, like math and science, but Star Spencer currently only offers English and history.

Maalik Livingston, a Star Spencer senior, said his AP classes have fewer students in the classroom, which allows teachers to connect greater with students. Livingston said the homework and reading are challenging and take time, but, in return, he earns college credit.

“If you get in an AP class, be ready to buckle down,” Livingston said.

Southeast’s approach

As an alumna and daughter of a former Southeast principal, Mylissa Hall returned to the south Oklahoma City school last year well-versed in the school’s long tradition of excellence in academics.

With a majority of Southeast juniors and seniors enrolled in AP courses, school leaders expect students to challenge themselves and seek as many higher-level education opportunities as possible.

“We would like to see the students with their associate degree by the time they leave us,” Hall said. “If not an associate degree, then at least the first round of credits for their freshman year of college.”

Southeast offers 16 AP courses, including physics, environmental science and world history. This year, the school added AP human geography, the only course open to ninth-graders, which allows 13- and 14-year-olds to experience a college-level course. About 800 students attend Southeast, 64 percent of the population is Hispanic and an even greater percentage of students are eligible for free or reduced lunches.

As Southeast added AP courses, it also increased student enrollment in those courses. In 2015, students took 340 AP exams. This past spring, the number of AP exams increased by more than a third, and 475 exams were completed.

That’s a major change from when Chele Crosby started teaching at Southeast more than a decade ago. She said a handful of students took AP classes, which weren’t well publicized. To enhance district efforts to increase AP enrollment, Crosby organized Southeast’s AP Nights, evening events about the AP program for parents and students.

Beyond the academic and financial benefits, Crosby tells parents about the confidence boost she sees in students who take her two AP classes.

“Most of the students are first-generation college-goers,” Crosby said. “That confidence is key to making the transition from high school to college.”

Southeast senior Daisy Barrios, an AP student, said she is confident about entering college and pursuing a pharmacy degree.

“You feel more confident and you feel like you accomplished something during your high school career,” Barrios said. “You are preparing yourself for the future.”

Print headline: Raising potential, OKCPS seeks to expand advanced placement courses in all high schools and opportunities for minorities and low-income students.

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