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TrekNorth AP classes place high priority on college readiness

From left, TrekNorth Junior and Senior High School 10th-grader Emily Quanrud, 11th-grader Rachel Lash and 12th-grader Amber Armstrong study together during their Advanced Placement Language and Composition class on Monday. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Dan McKeon, director of TrekNorth Junior and Senior High School, wants every student at TrekNorth to go to college, or at least have that option.

In order to make this goal a reality, McKeon and TrekNorth's Board of School Administrators have designed a curriculum of Advanced Placement classes and have in place a requirement that all students be eligible for post-secondary higher education before they receive a high school diploma.

Now, more than ever, TrekNorth has focused its attention on college readiness. Even its mission statement calls for "student success by participation (in) college-readiness courses, including Advanced Placement courses."

TrekNorth offers eight AP courses to its 110 students in grades 9-12. Students at the junior high level may take pre-AP courses. AP classes at TrekNorth have an average of 12 students per class.

AP courses are college-level classes that high school students can take to earn college credit if they pass the AP exam with a score of a 3 or higher. Each exam is graded on a scale of 1 to 5 (maximum). Even if students fail the AP exam, they can still pass the class, but without attaining college credit.

McKeon said the curriculum at TrekNorth is continuously being refined to become more effective at giving students the best chance at being successful after high school.

"What's important to me, as an educator, is that they have the option of higher education," McKeon said. "If people are going to come to this school, they need to commit to making that a reality."

AP courses taught at Trek-North include Language & Composition, Environmental Science, Calculus, Statistics, Psychology, European History, United States History and Studio Art.

McKeon reported that in both 2008 and 2009, 50 percent of TrekNorth's graduates had taken and passed at least one AP exam during their high school career.

In 2009, 78 percent of the AP exams taken by TrekNorth students resulted in a score of 3 or higher.

"We're doing this with kids, who, if they went to a larger public school, like Bemidji High School, most wouldn't see inside of an AP classroom," McKeon said.

Teachers at TrekNorth are the ones who decide whether a student is ready for an AP class. As an example, McKeon pointed out some of his students were ready for AP math by the time they graduated from eighth grade.

Teachers meet to discuss which students are or aren't being 'appropriately challenged,' McKeon said. Students are placed in classes that will keep them engaged and challenged.

"We want our kids to do well on the test, but passing the class is their first priority," McKeon said. "Research has shown that kids who take AP classes are better off in life. They have more options and are more successful because they made it through a challenging course."

The TrekNorth graduates of 2009 were the first ones who were required to be accepted into a post-secondary higher education program before receiving a high school diploma, as mandated by the school board.

This means students must not only complete the high school's regular graduating requirements, but they must also apply and be accepted to a post-secondary institution, such as a technical school, the military, a culinary arts or performing arts school, or a four-year college, as examples.

"We are not making kids go to college," McKeon said. "What we're trying to do is to make college an option for every kid. I want that door to be open. It's up to them whether they walk through that door. It's their personal choice to go."

McKeon said he is most proud of giving all students the opportunity to succeed after high school, specifically those who, statistically, are given a smaller chance at enrolling in higher education.

According to McKeon, 60 percent of TrekNorth students receive free or reduced lunch; 30 percent are Native American.

"Both of these demographics, statistics would say aren't as likely to go to college," McKeon said. "For me, I feel like closing that achievement gap is really important. What's important is having the option of higher education."

For students to be accepted to a technical college, in most cases, the process involves completing an application form, providing a copy of a high school transcript or GED and completing an assessment (or requesting a waiver).

McKeon said because of the small class sizes at TrekNorth, he often gets visits from students who have graduated. He said he often hears the same feedback from many of the students who choose to go to college.

"We have kids who have graduated with a semester or a full year of college credits completed," McKeon said. "Many say their freshmen year at college was easier than their senior year here."

Students feel like they are prepared for the college experience because of the curriculum at TrekNorth, McKeon said.

"That validates everything," McKeon said. "Hearing about what they're majoring in at college and that they're succeeding validates everything we do."