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Opening Doors Into World Of AP Classes

Rick Green

September 18, 2009

Good old cash, it turns out, may not be such a bad incentive at all.

A privately funded program that encourages minority and low income students to take Advanced Placement classes and that pays bonuses to high school teachers and students appears to be making a difference.

Project Opening Doors, a $13.2 million initiative in Connecticut, reports that more students are enrolling and more are passing the challenging Advanced Placement exams.

With one of the most stubborn achievement gaps in the land, we have to be open to new solutions, even if at first the idea seems to be the opposite of what learning is all about.

Project Opening Doors is about far more than the cash payments for good work, although that's certainly part of the effort. It's about more training and classroom support for teachers. It's about working after school and on Saturdays for students.

Frank Spring, who teachers AP calculus at Wilby High School in Waterbury, told me that more students see his class "as something that they would want to do. Now it's more accepted. It's not just the same kids."

"Last year was the most work I've done teaching in one year," said Spring, who has taught for the last seven years at Wilby, where 80 percent of the students are minorities. "It's nice to have the motivation."

More than anything, the program aims to bring minority, low income and female students into the privileged world of Advanced Placement. According to the school reform group ConnCan, the state's achievement gap "at all levels, in all subjects, for all disadvantaged groups, is among the largest in the nation."

While the statewide percentage of minority students passing the math, science and English AP exam edged up 2.3 percent this year, minority students in Project Opening Doors jumped by 26 percent. Students in the program made up the entire statewide increase.

Teachers, who are paid for their after-school and weekend work on the program, also are eligible for bonuses of up to $3,000. Students get $100 every time they score a 3 or better on an AP exam.

The real difference comes in creating a new culture, Wilby High School Principal Robyn Apicella told me.

Teachers and students "are thinking differently. I am starting to see a shift and it's only been a year," Apicella said. "If they have the AP courses, they are going to finish school and they are more apt to go to college. These are the first students in their families to finish high school."

After starting in nine schools, the program has expanded into a dozen more, including Hartford, this year. Unions have continued to fight it because of the bonuses linked to test scores. A decision in a lawsuit challenging the program, filed by the Stamford Education Association, is expected any day.

"We took nine schools with varying backgrounds and managed to significantly increase their enrollments in math, science and English," said Camille Vautour, president of Project Opening Doors.

The effort is part of a larger initiative, the National Math and Science Initiative, funded by ExxonMobil, in partnership with the Connecticut Business and Industry Association.

When it came to scores for students on the AP test, Vautour said, "We did three times better than the rest of the state. We did twice as well as the nation."

More than 2,600 students are taking part this school year, with the hope that many of them will take and pass AP tests next spring.

"We think we've got a formula that's working. It's a combination of intense professional development for teachers and increased student instructional time in the form of tutoring during the week and Saturday preparation sessions," Vautour said. "It's more or less common sense."

It's hard work and common sense, with a little cash to sweeten the deal. That's a chance worth taking.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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