Advanced Placement Partnership in Peril

By Patrick Cassidy,

MASHPEE — As Celeste Reynolds' students tumbled into their seats Wednesday at Mashpee High School, it was hard to tell if their bubbly excitement was because their school day was almost over or because their Advanced Placement Human Geography course was about to begin.

"The kids will say it's really tough," Reynolds said. "It's a lot of work, but when they walk out of here they have a lot of pride."

Reynolds, who previously worked as an economist for the federal government, quickly got down to business, handing out a College Board document to her freshman class.

The expansion of the college-level courses to include freshmen in Mashpee is only 2 years old, Reynolds said, adding that the classes have not only improved student performance but also her teaching.

Although Mashpee school officials were already making an effort to get more students into AP courses, a 4-year-old private-public partnership called the Mass Math + Science Initiative has helped boost enrollment, Superintendent Ann Bradshaw said.

The program provides funding for teacher training, professional development and for Saturday sessions on the AP coursework. It also pays financial awards of $100 to teachers and students who meet specific goals.

Once thought to be the exclusive domain of geeks and brainiacs, AP courses at more than 50 schools across the state are now open to a wider array of students through the initiative.

Since Mashpee joined two years ago, the number of the school district's students taking AP exams has jumped from 100 to 245, Bradshaw said.

"It's had a tremendous impact," Bradshaw said. "We see kids who wouldn't have thought of themselves as capable of high performance and they do it."

With state legislators picking over the 2013 budget, however, the program's future remains in doubt. Program administrators initially asked for $3.25 million to expand into 13 other schools, including Barnstable High School. Gov. Deval Patrick included $2.4 million in his budget proposal to maintain the involvement of schools already signed up, and the House slashed spending on the program to $1.75 million, a move that would mean cutting some existing participants.

On Wednesday, the Senate Ways and Means Committee released a budget that included $2 million for the program. Debate on the Senate's spending plan, including an amendment to add $400,000 for the AP program, begins this week.

State Sen. Dan Wolf, D-Harwich, supports the increase in funding for the program.

"It will help our state remain as a leader in the area of preparing students to excel in the fields of math and science," he said.

Despite the struggle to secure state funding, Mass Math +Science Initiative president Morton Orlov hopes lawmakers will recognize the program's benefits.

"Broadly, I've had a very, very positive response from the legislators," Orlov said. "They see the numbers and they get it."

The effects of the initiative reach further than just the students who score 3, 4 or 5 on their AP exams, qualifying them for college credit, Orlov said.

Expanding the population of students taking AP courses gives a wider range of young people needed experience with college-level work, he said.

"Think about it as reaching way into the middle of the class," he said, adding that students who take the AP courses are better prepared for college and the teachers who teach them are better prepared to teach other classes.

Whereas past measurements of success in AP courses were often based on what percentage of students qualified for college credit, Orlov advocates instead for counting the number of students enrolled and the number who score a qualifying grade.

If more students take the courses, then it's a success, he said. If more qualify for college credit, great, but good data show that even those who don't qualify get a benefit from the courses, he said.

Orlov hopes legislators can be convinced that state money is well spent on the program, especially since it can be used to leverage private dollars. The initiative's total annual budget, including private funds, is nearly $7 million, he said.

"We're going to bring over $3.5 million in private funding to the table next year," Orlov said.

The private funds are used for financial awards for students and teachers who meet certain goals, he said.

Over time the hope is to get most of the state's high schools involved, including other schools on the Cape, Orlov said.

While Mashpee is the only Cape school in the program, Barnstable is on a short list of districts seeking a spot this year.

"For Barnstable, it's going to be about $400,000 over the course of three years," Superintendent Mary Czajkowski said.

Czajkowski plans to give every sophomore the opportunity to take the PSAT during the school day starting in the fall, allowing less advantaged students a chance to be picked for an AP course, she said. Normally the PSAT would cost between $13 and $18, but the school system will cover that cost for the high school's roughly 400 sophomores, she said.

The goal is to double enrollment in AP courses, Czajkowski said. And if the state doesn't come up with the money, she said, the district will. It's that important, she said.

Reynolds' students at Mashpee High School agree.

"I'm surprised by how much I'm actually learning that I can use outside of school," 15-year-old Kate Albretsen said.

Albretsen and the other 14 students in the class rattled off some of what they had learned in the class about global conflicts, genetically modified foods, outsourcing and the impact of big companies such as Wal-Mart.

"I think it's really challenging, but it's good to push yourself to see what you're capable of doing," 14-year-old Lashelle Mathis said about the work.