(Photo by Chris McAndrews)
As one of the oldest and most diverse schools in Philadelphia, Northeast High School is used to change.
In 2010, the school decided to completely overhaul its Advanced Placement program with the hopes of improving student participation and scores on the AP exams, which many colleges use to dictate acceptance and placement of applicants.
Students and teachers alike responded so positively to these changes that the school saw college-eligible scores nearly triple in just three years.
Prior to the changes, the AP program at Northeast needed quite a bit of work.
Although the program had a significant number of students participating, the number of college-eligible scores, consisting of a 3 or better, was only around 10 percent according to the school’s participants.
The school was founded in 1890 in what is now considered North Philadelphia and is again in a quickly changing part of the city: near the Rhawnhurst and Burholme neighborhoods that were once white and middle class but seeing new immigrant populations and people of various racial and socioeconomic backgrounds moving from other neighborhoods.
The public high school is a diverse one: a third of students are black, and white, Asian and Hispanic students all make up about 20 percent each. Though the 19111 is among the city’s wealthier zip codes, more than four of five students at Northeast are considered ‘economically disadvantaged.’
In that way, the Northeast program was an opportunity to experiment with a diverse public high school environment. With scores not where they needed to be, the school saw this as an opportunity to improve.
Beginning in the 2010-2011 school year, Northeast implemented a variety of resources to assist the students in their studies. Some of these resources included Saturday practice exams, summer assignments and classroom software solutions, like test prep tools from Silicon Valley edtech startup Shmoop and collaborative learning management from New York-based Schoology.
After introducing these resources, not only did participation increase but teachers say they saw growth in student dedication to the program.
“Students started staying after school to work on understanding the concepts better and ask questions,” said AP teacher Chris Johnson. “They really cared about doing well in the program and wanted to work hard to get the better scores.”
The student drive for better scores led to the incorporation of some non-traditional study techniques as well. Many students felt more comfortable using the more technological route for learning and not only used the online resources they were given but came up with their own style of learning too.
For some, software tools, like Schoology and Shmoop, were the first introduction these students had to online learning, which has had an explosion of offerings in recent years. Through these programs, they were able to take practice exams on their own, work on drills to hone their knowledge and even directly connect with teachers to ask for specific help.
Other students felt the need to come up with their own online methods.
“At first I would use Google to find the topics I was looking for but a lot of the wording used there was too difficult to understand,” said senior AP student Angel Mai. “Instead of trying to understand the difficult words, I would use YouTube instead. They have someone explain everything thoroughly and that helped me so much more.”
The point may be how many different methods were at play — more personal learning, technology tools to support and a new commitment to improving scores, all of which helped students buy in and ultimate drive the change.
In the end, the success that Northeast has seen within its AP program can be credited to the devotion of students and teachers, but it takes a spark.
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