Autumn Higgs can imagine herself someday working with animals or children, maybe running her own business. As with many ninth graders, the future seems far from definite. She and her teachers at Glasgow High School, however, have already set an ambitious path leading there. After exceeding her own expectations on a standardized national exam last spring, Autumn’s freshman schedule now includes English, science and math classes that lead to rigorous Advanced Placement courses in each subject.
“I did well in pre-algebra, but I felt like last year was kind of slow,” Autumn recalls. Her middle school math teacher, working with the high school faculty, urged Autumn to take Pre-AP Algebra I this year — followed by two more pre-AP math classes next year and one as a junior — to get on track for AP Calculus or AP Statistics as a senior.
Autumn’s experience is common in a school that has spent the past seven years grooming more students for challenging AP courses built around national college-level standards. Where many schools allow top students to opt into high-level AP courses, Glasgow is making them the norm. (This year, 129 of 163 ninth graders are on a path that would lead to at least one AP math class before graduation.)
Upgrading academics has meant extensive training for teachers throughout the school and district, major changes in how students are scheduled into classes and supported should they fall behind, and higher expectations for what will be learned and how achievement is measured.
Since 2010, Glasgow High School has nearly quadrupled the number of students taking AP courses — from 59 to 232 last year. The coordinated approach, which now reaches to middle school, promises those numbers will keep rising. The push coincides with a major boost in ACT college-entrance exam scores. Glasgow High moved from the state average in 2010 to one spot below the state’s Top 10 last year.
Beyond academics, Glasgow sees improvement in students’ attentiveness, study skills, time management and work ethic.
Keith Hale, the district superintendent, said that the AP effort grew from internal concerns at Glasgow High that too many students were not reaching their potential. The school joined Advance Kentucky, a statewide group that has worked since 2008 to build stronger AP participation. Executive Director Anthony Mires said that the Glasgow program is “hitting on all cylinders and finding out how deep you can go.”
Hale said that connecting to top national academic standards, involving all teachers in the effort, and dramatically expanding the number of students in demanding classes were seen as imperatives in Glasgow. During his tenure as principal as GHS, Hale was eager to usher students toward advanced academics. He recalled an assembly of freshmen students one year: “I asked ‘How many of you are planning to go to college?” he said. “If they raised their hand, I said you’re going into AP Language and Composition.”
About two-thirds of Glasgow students now take the AP Language course, usually as juniors, and about the same number take AP Biology, often as sophomores. The school offers 14 AP classes this year.
Autumn Higgs feels comfortable about the challenge. There is time before and after school when students can get help, she said. Plus, teachers offer office hours. Extra class time has been built into AP courses to help students do the required work. Autumn noted that fellow students are also glad to help. “As long as you try and you communicate here, you should be fine,” she said.
Since 2010, the number of Glasgow students taking A.P. courses has grown from 59 to 232 last year. With coordination that now involves the middle school, those numbers are likely to keep rising.
The program has improved connections between teachers and students, and between the school and parents, said Kellie Lee, math department chair and an AP teacher and trainer. “We knew that pushing kids ahead would take extra time in a supportive environment,” she said.
Those supports have clarified and elevated teachers’ focus on helping students to develop attentiveness in class, learn study skills, practice time management, and build a work ethic that will help them succeed in adult life, according to GHS Principal Amy Allen. “Our main goal is to give kids choices when they leave high school,” she said. “These skills will make them competitive, whatever they have in mind.”
Julius Shirley, a senior political science major at Western Kentucky University and Glasgow grad, credits the AP expansion for his success early in college. “I saw students who didn’t have the same preparation — they were out of the loop, struggling to study and find a balance. I knew what to expect and how to go about it,” he said. “I told my younger brother that if college is what you want to do, there’s no better way to prepare.”
Hector Cabrera, a junior taking AP Language and Composition, said that being encouraged toward challenging courses prompted him to become more serious about learning. “My writing was not that great until I started paying attention more in class,” the 16-year-old said. “It really is a different level — more material that you cover faster with deeper details. I had to adjust. Now I write better, read better and comprehend better because they expect more.”
ISSUES IN ADVANCED ACADEMICS
In the drive to boost equity in education, a common hurdle is closing “opportunity gaps.” The term refers to practices that allow a portion of students to gain easier access to quality teachers or stronger learning experiences associated with rigorous courses. Opportunity gaps are closely connected to achievement gaps. Some questions that might spark a local conversation:
\\\\\ Which courses in your schools best define advanced academics?
\\\\\ How many students are currently in those courses and earning high grades? What are the recent trends for enrollment and performance?
\\\\\ Does a plan exist for increasing enrollment, performance, or preparation for advanced course? Does the plan include targets or supports for reducing the school’s achievement gaps based on race, gender, family income or other groups?
For schools trying to expand the number of students moving toward challenging courses, providing supports for students who might be unprepared is important. At Glasgow High School, for example, students have access to longer class time and check-ins with teachers to confer about quality class work. Teachers at the school also meet regularly to assure rigor and quality work.
\\\\\ Expanded AP enrollment is one way of targeting the “excellence gap.” It is the difference between preparing students to reach proficiency on state standards versus steering students toward advanced academic work that taps expert thinking and complex communication skills — a growing economic necessity.
One leading voice on preparing more students for bigger challenges is Jonathan Plucker, a professor of talent development at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. At a 2016 Prichard Committee meeting, Plucker said that the state and local school districts need ambitious goals on increasing the percentage of students who score well above “proficient” levels. “Getting students to grade level is not really the end zone; it’s more like the 25-yard line,” he said. Advanced academic work is an area of focus in many countries outside the U.S., he noted. Find out more on this topic from Plucker’s 2013 report, Talent on the Sidelines or his 2016 book, Excellence Gaps in Education.
\\\\\ Learn more about Advance Kentucky, the group that has organized training and support for teachers in Glasgow and other Kentucky school districts. You can also learn more about Advanced Placement courses and tests, designed by The College Board. This document offers details on material covered in the AP U.S. History course and test.
Each month, the BRIGHT SPOTS blog showcases impressive learning in Kentucky schools.
IN MAY \\\\\
IMPROVING STUDENT WORK at Glenn O. Swing Elementary in Covington
ABOUT GLASGOW HIGH \\\\\
RACE: 31.8% minority
INCOME: 71% eligible for free/reduced price meals
\\\\\ Glasgow students from the state’s “gap group” demographic categories made significant improvements in reaching ACT benchmarks by 11th grade, moving from 47 percent at the English benchmark in 2014 to 58 percent in 2017 — 16 points above the state average. In math, the percentage of gap group students at ACT math benchmarks moved from 37 percent in 2014 to 56 percent in 2017, compared to a 30 percent state average for both years.
\\\\\ In the school’s AP push, the percentage of students in gap groups represented in the total number of students taking AP courses at Glasgow rose from 26 percent in 2013-14 to 42 percent in 2016-17, according to state data.
\\\\\ Glasgow earned a Silver Medal in the 2017 U.S. News & World Report Best High Schools rankings of public high schools.