AP Science Cancellation Causes Confusion

Broken beakers and test tubes are a normality in class.

A student from the class of 2012 works his way through junior year chemistry, so he can take AP Chemistry his senior year. He could have gone the physics route, but chose chemistry for the challenge it’s known for, and as an impressive addition to his transcript. Another student eagerly awaits taking AP Environmental Science her senior year, after she’s through taking required science classes. Come this year, both these seniors are out of luck, because AP Chemistry and AP Environmental Science were discontinued this year.

Sound unfair? Try this one: Administrators work hard every year to offer the right classes, talking to students about what they want, while simultaneously fulfilling state and district requirements, preparing students for college and careers, and balancing a complicated master schedule. But when the new school year starts, students throw off class sizes by taking Running Start, and cause the school to lose funding by taking additional classes at other high schools. This loss of funding makes it even more difficult for administrators to offer the programs that students need. That’s not fair either.

This is the mess created in the wake of the loss of AP Chemistry and AP Environmental Sciences.

According to former Assistant Director of STEM Leadership, and current instructor of Student Inquiry and Research, Scott McComb, the decision resulted from trying to find the best way to prepare students for upper level science.

“We took a good hard look last spring at the courses we were offering, and we were looking at whether students are well prepared for AP Chemistry,” said McComb, “when you think about it, the students who could take AP Chemistry are a relatively small group. They must have taken chemistry as juniors, they must have done well, and they must be interested in taking AP Chemistry, and they should have a reasonable chance at success on the test.”

 

At AHS, the group of students who can take AP chemistry is even smaller than in a large comprehensive school. Large comprehensive high schools often offer an intro to chemistry class that paves the way for AP Chemistry later on. At AHS, all ninth graders take Physical Science and Physics of Flight, a course focused on meteorology, physics and astronomy, which means they miss this introduction.

“The idea about kids being prepared for college level chemistry makes an awful lot of sense, particularly at a STEM based school,” said McComb, “the trick is helping them all get ready in one year.”

This challenge to better prepare students eventually led AHS to offer a new course this year instead of AP Chemistry that will help them do this. Science Inquiry and Research allows students to actually have an internship in their chosen science discipline.

“The idea behind that course, is to connect students with internships, either in the industry, or in academia, where students can pursue something of high interest and high value to them specifically,” explained McComb. “When we talk about AP Chemistry, at the end you take a test and you get either a big smiley face, or a big frowny face, it’s my hope with this new course… you’ll get experience with working professionals in areas of particular interest to each of the students involved.”

Flash forward to this year. Without AP Chemistry and AP Environmental Science, students are concerned with the discontinuation of two of three AP science classes. These are common concerns considering Aviation is a school that focuses on STEM education and college readiness. In fact, AP Physics is now the only AP Science class offered at AHS.

“I just want AHS to live up to what it claims to be, a STEM and college prep school. And right now, I feel that it is slowly straying away from its title as a STEM, college prep, and lighthouse school,” said AHS student Anthea Phuong, “I am a proud student of AHS and I want to keep it that way.”

To concerns like these,  Assistant Director of STEM Leadership, Bruce Kelly, responds that the focus of AHS first and foremost is aviation and aerospace. As a small school, its course offerings are less flexible than that of a larger school.

“I think a couple things to consider, is that this is a small school model, and that operates a lot differently than a four year comprehensive plan.” explained Kelly, “It’s a very different dynamic, and with that said, there’s a lot of moving pieces in making sure kids are prepared for a career in aviation or aerospace; that’s what the school’s about.” He later added, “It might help to realize, just stepping back for a moment, that there’s a lot more to the puzzle than I think some people realize.”

Other students have reacted to the cancellation of AP Chemistry by taking some of their classes through a community college. While not as common at AHS, the Running Start program allows students to expand their options for college level science, while still enrolled at AHS.

“AP classes are supposed to represent what a college environment is like, but actual college classes are more challenging than AP,” says Liam Wingard, who is in Running Start at Tacoma Community College, “for procrastinators, it is hell; but for the focused, it is a chance to shine. Whether or not you like the college experience is personal preference, but I think it beats high school by five orders of magnitude.”

Phuong, along with a few other AHS students, has found an alternative at Highline High School. HHS offers an AP Biology class at 7:20 am, well before AHS starts first period. For Phuong, taking AP Biology is an important first step for a possible bioengineering or biotech career.

“I believed that it would be highly beneficial for me, since I’m interested in going into a bio-related career field. It really bummed me out that AHS didn’t offer a better variety of AP science classes,” said Phuong, “I saw HHS as my opportunity!”

School administration strongly discourage students from taking AP Biology at Highline High School. Phuong is at a loss to understand why this policy is in place, but the issue is more complicated than a simple question of what students want.

From Carper’s perspective, taking AP Biology at Highline means that because other schools get credit for their enrollment, AHS programs get less funding. This is an ongoing problem for AHS, students taking AP Biology is only the latest example.

“As much as I understand why students want to do that, it puts Aviation High School in a tough position,” explained Carper, “funding pays for teachers, it pays for supplies, it pays for programs. We want to put the students first, but we feel like it puts other students at a disadvantage when we don’t get funding.”

Considering that students being enrolled at other high schools costs AHS $10,601 per student, according to the schools 2009-10 performance report,  it’s no wonder administrators want students to take their classes at AHS. However, this conflict has created frustration in students who wanted to take AP Biology. As a student who wanted to take it, Phuong is very aggravated by this policy.

“I was outraged and very frustrated! I don’t care that they don’t like the idea,” said Phuong, “I should be able to take classes that are not offered at AHS. All students should.”

Carper understands this point of view, but stresses that class scheduling is a highly complex process, which takes into account student interest as well as state requirements, teacher accreditation and college entrance requirements. This system is made even more complicated because of Aviation’s small student body.

“The advantages of being in a small school are many; but one of the disadvantages is that we can’t offer every single class that a large school can offer. We have to take into account who we are at Aviation High School, what makes sense to offer, and what students need,” Carper pointed out, “As much as I care about what AP students want, I also care about what non-AP students need and may benefit from as well.”

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