Virginia School Gives Open Enrollment AP Classes a Chance

Some time ago, teachers and administrators at Woodside High School outside Richmond, Virginia made a decision to give as many students as they could the opportunity to enroll in any AP class they chose. Meg Wiggins, one of the teachers of Advanced Placement Biology, admits that the overcrowded labs – more than 25 students tried their hand at the experiment – occasionally stress-tests the experiment, but admits that she sees the benefit of allowing students to attempt things that they are not necessarily fully ready to undertake.

Woodside, which is a magnet school that draws a majority of its students from distressed areas, wants to match the rates of participation in AP classes to schools in more affluent neighborhoods. That sometimes means that its overall AP exam grades suffer as more students don't attain the necessary 3 out of 5 to earn college credit for the course. However, Wiggins and others at Woodside believe that the benefit derived from allowing students to strive for something meaningful is worth the tradeoff.

Woodside offers an unusual example of a school that treats AP as a sports team. It opens AP courses to all students regardless of grade-point average, recruits heavily and trains after school. A lot of students don't know what AP is, or they think that "only the absolute cream-of-the-crop, smartest kids going to Harvard can be successful in AP, and that is absolutely not true," Wiggins said.

Sean Callender, Woodside's principal, makes use of a sports analogy often when he tries to sell AP classes to parents and students. He calls straight-A students attempting AP-level work — even if that might bring down their grade point average — "stepping up to the next league." Still, this isn't about throwing kids into the deep end of the pool with no life preserver. After school sessions every Tuesday and Thursday are there to help those who are struggling with the material.

In a nod to economic realities of their students' lives, the school pays for the end-of-year AP exams. The school also makes it harder for students to have a change of heart once they're committed: dropping the course in mid-year is made intentionally difficult.

Both teachers' and parents' signatures are required for withdrawal, allowed only after a student attends three tutoring sessions. Even then, parents must meet with a counselor to approve the withdrawal. It rarely gets that far, counselor Kathy DiMarino said. After the tutoring, many kids "figure out that they can do this."

Even with all the work required to succeed, Callender admits that the hardest part could come at the very end when the AP exam results come in. It's challenging to make a student content with the idea of giving their all for an entire year only to get a 1 or a 2 on the AP test. Soothing hurt feelings has to come down to perspective.

 "You kind of have to help them reflect on their year," he said, reminding them, for instance, that at the start of the course they couldn't even do the required work. Taking an AP class has benefits even if they failed the test. "You're better off trying to convince them that they're better off," he said.

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