Lowell Matthews, Jr., is the Director of College and Career Pathways for ExcelinEd.
College acceleration opportunities—including Advanced Placement (AP), Cambridge AICE, College-Level Examination Program (CLEP), dual enrollment, early college high schools and International Baccalaureate (IB)—can help high school students prepare for college-level work while they earn valuable college credit or work toward a postsecondary credential. However, these opportunities are still out of reach for many students.
ExcelinEd’s college acceleration policy playbooks share the specific steps states and schools can take to improve opportunities and outcomes for their students. Our first playbook identifies a series of nine non-negotiables states, colleges, universities and schools can use to strengthen their college acceleration programs to benefit all students—especially those who have been traditionally underserved. Our second playbook examines how five schools in five different states are putting these non-negotiables into practice.
In today’s post, we’ll take a closer look at one of those schools: Richlands High School in Richlands, North Carolina.
Despite its rural surroundings, Richlands is quickly becoming a more suburban community as the nearby city of Jacksonville grows. Additionally, U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp LeJeune is in Jacksonville; therefore, the school serves a large military community. Coupled with the rapid growth and the transient nature of military service, Richlands High School (RHS) faces another challenge—40% of the school’s 900 students are economically disadvantaged.
While RHS offers dual credit through Coastal Carolina Community College, Advanced Placement (AP) is another popular college acceleration option available to students. Administered by the College Board, AP enables academically prepared students to pursue college-level studies. AP courses offer students the opportunity to earn college credit, placement or both while still in high school—helping them save time and money in college.
In the past four years, RHS has added five new AP courses for a total of 10, including AP Capstone and AP Computer Science Principles. Students currently take AP Computer Science A through the North Carolina Virtual School. However, RHS plans to add AP Computer Science A soon.
RHS has focused on three non-negotiables to drive AP success:
Non-Negotiable: Postsecondary institutions and schools use multiple measures of student eligibility to allow students to enroll in opportunities, especially low-income and traditionally underrepresented students.
RHS ambitiously identifies students capable of AP courses. The school doesn’t rely on a single indicator but instead uses a number of tools to indicate AP potential:
Non-Negotiable: States and school districts ensure that educators in all schools receive appropriate training to teach college acceleration opportunities.
RHS has aggressively expanded its capacity to teach AP by prioritizing the program through its school budget and external support. Principal Staley has used the following strategies to develop a school where teachers are equipped and excited to teach AP classes:
Non-Negotiable: Schools notify students in all schools of available opportunities and use state indicators to identify low-income and traditionally underrepresented students with the potential to succeed in college acceleration opportunities. Schools notify students and their parents of the credit transferability for each college acceleration option before students enroll.
RHS does an excellent job of notifying students of available college acceleration opportunities, especially AP. This notification process occurs throughout the year so students and parents don’t hear about these opportunities for the first time at the registration desk. In particular, RHS does the following:
RHS also uses gatekeeper AP courses to draw student interest. Most AP exams are taken in the 11th and 12th grade, however, some exams—like AP Computer Science Principals—can be taken in the 9th or 10th grade. These courses demonstrate to students they can succeed in AP courses and encourage enrollment in future AP courses.
While our nine non-negotiables provide an important framework for quality in college acceleration opportunities, our interview with Principal Staley and Asst. Principal Turner revealed an additional strategy: school culture.
These seasoned educators repeatedly emphasized the need to “change the conversation” on AP potential and success with parents and students. Their culture is epitomized by the refrain, “gentle pressure relentlessly.” Principal Staley and Asst. Principal Turner are constantly enforcing the idea that students can succeed in college-level courses. This notion permeates teacher professional development, school advisor conversations, parent and student interactions as well as the school day. (The master schedule, for example, is examined to ensure block scheduling allows pairing of AP courses.) RHS, quite simply, doesn’t take no for an answer on AP.
Principal Staley acknowledges that Richlands HS’s success extends beyond his school’s walls. He credits the following state policy elements with supporting his school’s work to help more students attempt and succeed in AP courses:
The 2019-20 school year was unlike any other because of COVID-19. On March 13, 2020, RHS abruptly closed the school and shifted to a completely different instructional delivery model. Even with the College Board’s responsive shift to online exams based on AP course ending on March 13, there were a higher number of student opt-outs in taking the AP exam versus taking the AP course due to COVID-19. RHS students were concerned that the exam would be reliable (i.e., students would lose their work) and that there would be connectivity issues. To help address connectivity concerns, RHS offered Wi-Fi in the school parking lot for AP exam taking. The biggest challenge going forward continues to be AP strategies for remote instruction, which the school is actively developing.
The College Board has created AP instructional resources—including daily videos—to help schools like RHS meet the needs of teachers, whether they are teaching in-person, hybrid or online courses.
Principal Staley has identified two possibilities to support his school—and others in the state—as they advance quality college acceleration options for students: