Representatives with the Minnesota Department of Education and the College Board visited Bemidji High School and TrekNorth Junior & Senior High School Tuesday to learn more about the schools' Advanced Placement programs.
"These are examples of schools that can be models for the state," said Karen Klinzing, deputy commissioner with the MDE.
At both locations, Jeff Peterson, director of state government relations with the College Board, presented the school with a plaque recognizing the schools for having a commendable AP program. The education officials were given a presentation on the school's AP curriculum and a tour of the school, and also observed an AP course being taught.
"Gov. Pawlenty made this a strong priority - rigorous coursework, investing in AP strategies and training," said Lori Grivna, assistant commissioner of education with the MDE. "We will go back and talk to him about the great things these schools are doing and create awareness for policy makers to continue that commitment statewide because we are seeing results."
"We have five years of trend data that shows we are leading the nation in both increased (student) access (to AP classes) and student achievement at the same time," Klinzing added. "We want to make sure policy makers know this is important and this is something that needs to continue."
Bemidji High School
Bemidji High School has offered AP courses since 1992. Today the school offers 11 advanced placement classes, two pre-advanced placement courses in social studies and English.
In 2007, Bemidji School District received a grant, written by BHS AP teacher Jeff Aas, for more than $20,000 to create pre-AP courses, attract more minority and low-income students to register for pre-AP and AP courses, and to create an AP statistics course.
According to Aas, after BHS received the grant, the number of minority students registered for AP courses at BHS increased from 10 students in 2007 to 33 students in 2010. The number of low income students and students who qualify for free and reduced-priced meals that registered for AP courses increased from 20 students in 2007 to 41 students in 2010.
BHS introduced pre-AP courses at BHS in 2008-09, when it added two sections of social studies and two sections of English. A total of 124 students registered for these courses. Today, BHS offers three sections of social studies and two sections of English.
Aas said he has seen a big increase in the average exam scores of students who took a pre-AP exam before taking an AP exam versus those who did not.
Of the 60 BHS students who took the AP European History exam in 2010, 33 took the pre-AP social studies course in 2009. The average exam score for pre-AP students was 3.3, compared to an average test score of 2.5 for students who did not take the pre-AP course.
According to Aas, 22 percent more AP exams were given in 2010 than in 2009, and 16 percent more students tested in 2010 than the previous year. In 2009, 76.4 percent of BHS students who took an AP exam passed with an exam score of 3 or better.
Aas, who has been an AP advisor at BHS for five years, believes more students are taking pre-AP and AP courses and are receiving higher scores because of the grant from MDE in 2007, which allowed the school to offer pre-AP courses.
Jen Voge, BHS counselor, said the school also offers a registration fair where staff talk to parents about college readiness.
"During registration we talk to parents about college planning and the expectations we have for them receive a college admissions acceptance letter," Voge said. "We encourage students to take AP courses."
Lori Hildenbrand, pre-AP social studies instructor, said s aa teacher, she has used her AP training in more ways than just in her own classroom.
"It's created a dialogue between the teachers at the middle school and high school that we never shared before. It's putting everything on the same page," Aas said.
BHS Principal Brian Stefanich said the school has not had a problem filling pre-AP or AP courses. He also said there are no prerequisites for AP courses and no limit to how many AP courses a student can take.
"AP scores take the subjectivity out of grading something," Aas said. "An AP exam score shows accountability and whether or not the student is ready for college. With our AP curriculum, we're showing that we're not only hitting the bar, we're clearing it by quite a bit compared to the state in college readiness."
After the presentation at BHS, Grivna commented on why the MDE chose to visit BHS.
"We looked at many school districts around the state - rural school districts and schools in the metro area - and hands down, everyone said we needed to come to Bemidji because this is a school district that is really doing great things and showing great gains," Grivna said. "We are excited to be here. On behalf of the governor's office, we want to say 'Good job.'"
TrekNorth Junior & Senior High School
After touring BHS, the education officials met at TrekNorth to meet with staff and hear a presentation by TrekNorth Director Dan McKeon.
TrekNorth opened in 2003 using a project-based learning model. But by 2005, the school shifted its focus to college readiness with an AP program.
"How do you get a kid ready for college? You put them in an AP class, "McKeon said. "All the of the research said so."
In 2006, TrekNorth added a seventh- and eighth-grade.
"We knew if we were going to be successful with AP, we needed to get kids before ninth grade," McKeon said. "TrekNorth doesn't get kids who are traditionally college-bound, AP-bound students. While some kids you can work with in ninth grade, for the most part, we've learned you have to start earlier than that. We start in 7th grade."
According to McKeon, the 2009-10 school year was TrekNorth's most successful AP curriculum year.
In 2010, TrekNorth students averaged an AP exam score of 3.4, and 88 percent of the exams taken resulted in a score of 3 or higher, a 10 percent jump in exam scores from 2009.
"The percentage of our graduates who are passing an AP exam is three times the state and national average," McKeon said. "Almost 60 percent of our kids come from poverty. 30 percent of four kids are minorities. We are not doing this with the easiest group of kids to do this with."
"People are sometimes shocked when they ask us, 'Who gets to take your AP classes?'" AP teacher Mike Munson said. "I tell them, 'Whoever wants to. There are no criteria.'"
Klinzing said she was pleased to hear TrekNorth's AP program offers AP courses to all students.
"There is some gate keeping going on about who gets to be prepared and who doesn't get to be prepared in schools today," Klinzing said. "You guys are defying that gatekeeper mentality."
"You break the stereotype (of students who take AP classes," Peterson told McKeon and others. "To break the stereotype and succeed is just absolutely phenomenal."
McKeon attributes the AP program success to the school's pre-AP courses and increased teacher training in AP curriculum.
McKeon said with the exception of Munson, a few years ago all of the teachers at TrekNorth were new to AP.
"But now we're a few years down the road, and we're getting better at what we do and all of us are having success in AP tests," McKeon said.
McKeon said TrekNorth's curriculum is vertically aligned, which means each department is expected to align the coursework, materials and assignments with teachers from other departments so when students step foot into an AP classroom, they feel like they are in familiar territory.
"For a lot of our kids, college campuses can be intimidating," McKeon said. "One of the things about AP is if a kid makes it through an AP course at TrekNorth, when they sit down in a college classroom, the expectations being placed on them feel familiar. They've done it already."
Beyond AP courses, students at TrekNorth spend 40 minutes every Tuesday and Thursday, taking a college preparation course.
"I am really excited about what's going on here and your commitment to these kids," Klinzing said to McKeon and other staff. "You have so many right pieces in place. I wish we could scale this model up across the state."
"This is a school that has embraced the idea that kids don't come to you unable to learn," Klinzing added. "They come to you able to learn and can accelerate to grade level given the right tools to do it. AP is a great way to put that in place. Eighty-eight percent is outstanding for the number of kids getting a score of 3 or higher on an exam. It's fantastic."