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AP for all sophomores? This school is doing it

Other districts mull implementation

Northview — Taking an Advanced Placement class is known to be challenging. 

All the more so last week for 10th-graders at Northview High School who were tasked with presenting their learning to the creators and administrators of AP courses nationwide.

The College Board got to see that in action and hear from students themselves. They also visited pre-AP biology and pre-AP geometry and statistics classes there.

Northview High is the only school in the country where all sophomores participate in AP Seminar, a yearlong English course that helps students explore careers and other areas of interest to them in order to build foundational writing, collaboration, research and presentation skills. 

In Brandon Lee’s morning AP Seminar, students sat in the first two rows. In the back three were members of the College Board, as well as district and Kent ISD administrators.

“I’m taking notes on all of you, so no pressure at all,” College Board CEO David Coleman said jokingly, eliciting nervous laughter from students.

‘Until you fully engage someone, until you interest them, you can’t fully see them. Until there’s engagement, assessments are only shadows of what they can do.’

— College Board CEO David Coleman

Sophomores Nathan Hale and Emma Denton shared with the visitors how the course has so far helped them hone in on career fields they want to learn more about. For Nathan, that will likely be something in STEM. Emma said she’s considering health care.

“Spoiler alert: We are actually launching a class in AP anatomy and physiology,” Coleman announced, which brought cheers from some students and an enthusiastic fist pump from Arieanna Schroeder in the second row.

Like Emma, Arieanna is also eyeing a career in health care. After class, she admitted she would not have thought to take an AP class if it had not been required. 

“I feel like it would have been too stressful,” Arieanna said. And now? “Oh yeah, I would take more. When I was a freshman I didn’t know at all what I wanted. This (AP Seminar) is helping me figure it out.”

Mark Thomas

Required Course a ‘Game-changer’

NHS Principal Mark Thomas pushed for implementation of AP Seminar six years ago to replace English 10. He saw it as “a game-changer, in that it could both raise the academic bar and build academic momentum and self-esteem for more students,” he said, as well as present “a better opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge by using assessments and projects that were more non-traditional.”

So far, AP Seminar has now become the AP course with the highest passing rates among Northview students, including Black and Hispanic subgroups, while also having the closest scoring range among racial subgroups, Thomas wrote to the College Board.

Northview has since added pre-AP courses as a “runway” of academic momentum in the ninth and 10th grades. “We also have been able to get it going in our middle school with math in the eighth grade, with ELA to hopefully follow soon,” Thomas said.

‘The days of AP courses only for some need to be over.’

— Ron Gorman, Kent ISD assistant superintendent

Other benefits: an aligned curriculum across same-section courses like algebra, biology, chemistry and English, and better resource allocation.

What it all means: “not just raising our ceiling for academic learning, but more importantly, lifting the floor as well for all students,” he said.

Thomas, in his 22nd year as principal at Northview High, noted that nearly 40% of district students are non-white, and at least 40% receive free and reduced lunch. 

Too Many Left Behind

Before visiting Northview, the College Board officials hosted a presentation with Kent ISD for other superintendents, administrators, teachers and counselors about how Northview’s efforts could work in their districts, and proposed to support those who sign on with free or fee-waived teacher cohort training.

“Far too often, only certain scholars were placed in rigorous courses,” Ron Gorman, Kent ISD assistant superintendent, said to district staffers. “One thing we’ve found in going through transcripts is (that) many scholars who are left behind are in fact the most vulnerable. 

“The days of AP courses only for some need to be over.”

‘When I was a freshman I didn’t know at all what I wanted. This (AP Seminar) is helping me figure it out.’

— Sophomore Arieanna Schroeder

Coleman said a big shift in the College Board’s work going forward is not seeing Advanced Placement “as a second helping of what many students don’t want anyway.” He said AP hasn’t traditionally acknowledged the “broad middle,” the 50 to 70% of students who don’t think they would do well in AP courses.

“So we’re not uncovering the talent that’s there,” Coleman said. “Until you fully engage someone, until you interest them, you can’t fully see them. Until there’s engagement, assessments are only shadows of what they can do.”

Coleman conceded that some may see AP for all as a dilution of its prestige. But he argued that even though the proverbial floor is being lifted in the design of new AP course work, the ceiling height for high-achieving students remains unlimited.

For the traditional high-achievers, he mused, “What’s going to show their strength more: a simple test or a project they do that truly shows their interest?

“Creating an environment where (students) can choose what they want to learn and dig into that is a place where a lot more diverse minds and kids take seed.”

Sophomore Leah Murphy, left, talks with Hoor Bhanpuri, executive director of College Board’s K-12 Midwest region
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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio


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