AYER - Ayer Shirley Regional High School Principal Al Varga this week rolled out the latest Advanced Placement test results, proud to share what he considers "big news... for a number of reasons."
First, the district performed above the state average in several categories, he said.
Of the 88 students who took the exams in May, nine were named "AP Scholars," Varga said. The award recognizes students who achieved an average score of 3 or better on three or more exams.
The standout scorers were juniors William Doyle and Michele Woodland and seniors Jillian Folger, Timothy Holmes, Jennifer McGrath, Jacob Miska, Alexander Patano, Allison Steeves and Hann Tu.
Hann Tu, who received the "AP Scholar with Distinction" award, took five AP tests and scored 5 (on a 1-5 scale) on all but one. Her overall average was 4.6. Allison Steeves was awarded "AP Scholar with Honor" for achieving an average score of 4.5. She took four AP tests.
In the challenging and competitive environment that college-bound high school graduates face today, AP courses are no longer viewed as perks, more like prerequisites - and school districts must keep pace.
ASRSD is no exception. With a handful of AP classes offered three years ago, the roster has more than doubled since then. A couple of the courses, such as AP Chemistry, are new this year.
The high school now offers AP courses in English Literature/Language and Composition, U.S. Government, Calculus AB, Calculus BC, Biology, Physics, Chemistry, Statistics and Computer Science Principals.
In big picture terms, he's hoping the numbers will rise as the program expands. Citing student surveys and the school's Robotics Team, Varga said there's growing interest in AP courses, particularly in math and science, and the district is committed to opening those doors to everyone.
While some schools gear AP courses to their "best and brightest" and focus on top test scores, the aim here is inclusive, Varga said.
"We want to offer this college-level experience to all," he said. Students who take AP courses are exposed to a "deeper level of understanding and conversation," he said.
Asked about cost, Varga said there's no significant budget impact, with no newly-created staff positions added for AP courses. Given last year's notable staff turnover, he said some of the new hires came on board with skill sets that fit AP needs. Rob Sutton, for example, hired in September and now the Math Department's curriculum leader, will teach AP Calculus AB; Chelsea Carpenter, who is triple-licensed in biology, chemistry and physics, will teach AP Chemistry.
In addition, existing faculty continues with professional development, in house and out of district. "They are constantly honing their skills," Varga said. For example, Humanities/English teacher Melanie Wittmier and Humanities/History teacher Amy Allaire were trained as
AP readers at the invitation of the College Board, he said. AP Readers help score the annual AP exams and in the process learn current standards country wide, which helps them prepare their own students for the exams.
"That is a real plus...to know what's expected," Varga said.
AP test prep - including practice tests - can be very stressful, he added, noting that Wittmier does yoga exercises with her class for a couple weeks prior, to help them de-stress.
AP-specific teacher training comes via ASRSD's partnership with Mass Insight. The national non-profit, founded in 1997, "works with districts and the Department of Education," Varga said.
According to its website, Mass Insight is "dedicated to transforming public schools into high performing organizations..." and strengthening the AP program is part of that mission. Varga said that translates, in part, to advice on AP curriculum and contributing books and supplies. Another partnership perk: AP students visit other local high schools, "to get a different slant on the AP curriculum," he said.
Ayer Shirley also continues its link with Mount Wachusett Community College and the "Early College" program in which dual enrollment allows participating students to earn both high school and college credit for courses taken in high school. Psychology, for instance, which an MWCC professor will teach at ASRHS this fall.
The dual credit counts at MWCC, Fitchburg State University and other state schools, Varga said. As for private or out-of-state institutions, no guarantees, but enhanced resumes may help students skip courses they've already taken, even if credits don't transfer. Either way, they get a "leg up," he said.
As a package, it all adds up to the administration's and School Committee's goal to "increase academic rigor," Varga said. Next year's addition of Calculus BC, for example. Anticipating "only a small cohort of students," one of the teachers, Chris Urbine, plans to do it as an independent study, he said.