Pushing for college readiness through AP courses

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PITTSFIELD — John Smolenski stood up to his challenge on Thursday morning — trying to convince a crowd of dozens and dozens of Pittsfield High School students seated in a steamy, semi-lit auditorium at 8 a.m. to enroll in and stick with rigorous college-level courses of the Advanced Placement program. And to help them, there will be intensive practice and study sessions offered, on select Saturday mornings.

"But you can win prizes," he told the teens, noting that one of the previous PHS participants scored a $10 Dunkin' Donuts gift card at one of last year's study sessions.

"That makes getting up on a Saturday morning worth it, right," Smolenski quipped.

"No," an anonymous young male's voice shot back.

Undaunted, the man said, "Sure it is," and continued to cite evidence as to why.

As a senior field director for the Mass Math + Science Initiative, a Mass Insight Education program, Smolenski may not convince all high school students to challenge themselves, but he and his colleagues have been traveling across the commonwealth this fall to host kick-off programs to rally schools around AP classes. A kick-off was also held at Taconic High School on Thursday morning.

"Many more of you need to take more rigorous courses now, because when you get to college you'll be taking nothing but AP (level) courses," Smolenski told the PHS students. "Colleges want to see you challenge yourself now."

Mass Insight Education receives a mix of public and private funding and invests in its partner schools to provide AP class support for teachers and students at a subsidized cost. AP courses are developed and administered through an independent academic agency, The College Board, which is also responsible for the widely used SAT and Accuplacer exams.

In Berkshire County, Mass Insight Education partners with PHS, Taconic, Drury High School, Hoosac Valley High School and Wahconah Regional High School. It just wrapped a three-year partnership with Lee High School.

Mass Insight Education's AP STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and English program is designed to foster successful AP students, who statistically tend to have better rates than their non-AP-taking peers of being successful in college.

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Smolenski said that of 5,000 Mass Insight AP students polled, about 86 percent persisted in college, performing well between their freshman and sophomore post-secondary years.

Student who score a 3 or better on the AP score scale of 1 to 5, also become eligible to submit their score to waive an entry-level college course, thus resulting in a course cost savings and correlating with college attendance.

According to the agency, of the 9,000 students enrolled in Mass Insight Education's program who graduated from high school between 2009 to 2012, 81 percent enrolled in a 2- or 4-year college within 16 months of graduating high school.

"Mass Insight really does make a huge difference both for me to continue to better myself as a teacher and to support my students indirectly or directly in the classroom," said Carla Comeau, the PHS math department head who teaches AP Statistics and AP Calculus.

According to Mass Insight data, Pittsfield has increased dramatically AP Calculus enrollment and scores, with the number of Pittsfield public school students getting a passing grade of 3 or higher rising from 3 in 2011 to 34 in 2015.

In addition to having a signed agreement with every participating school and district, which includes annual performance targets, Mass Insight also commits up to 72 hours of teacher training per year with ongoing support; 18 hours of extra instruction and support, for every student, through Saturday study sessions; and privately funded financial incentives for students and teachers who perform well.

In Pittsfield, 65 students are currently enrolled in AP math courses, 96 students are enrolled in AP science, and 121 students are enrolled in AP English class through the Mass Insight partnership. Pittsfield also offers additional AP courses in other subject areas outside its Mass Insight partnership.

Last year, of students enrolled in Mass Insight AP STEM and English courses, 122 Pittsfield students earned qualifying AP exam scores of 3 or higher.

Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless, state Sen. Benjamin Downing, and state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier were on hand Thursday morning to commend PHS students, and encouraged them to continue to challenge themselves.

"We're proud of you," PHS Principal Matt Bishop told students at the rally, "and we're here to support you and guide you this year."


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