A $1 million three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education will allow SPPS to expand its online high school course offerings with Advanced Placement (AP) classes as early as this summer.
Bringing these college-level courses online “levels the playing field for all high school students” in the St. Paul schools, said E. Ashley Cannaday, gifted services program manager for the district. Students who attend schools that don’t have large AP course offerings, or enough students interested in taking specific courses, can now enroll in just about any AP course, she said.
Advanced Placement offers college-level courses to high school students throughout the United States and Canada. The program is governed by the not-for-profit College Board, headquartered in New York City.
The grant came through the federal Advanced Placement Incentive Program, and will be monitored by the Minnesota Department of Education. Minneapolis Public Schools was a part of this grant.
The current school year is the first year of the grant, Cannaday said, but the money didn’t arrive until March, “so it has been challenging to get things running.” Much of the current year funds will go toward planning and increasing student enrollment in a program called Breakthrough St. Paul, a six-week summer program where students spend six hours a day in instruction to prepare them for AP or International Baccalaureate classes. Breakthrough St. Paul is a partnership with Mounds Park Academy that targets low-income students and students from “underserviced populations who exhibit potential and have the ability to take Advanced Placement classes,” according to Cannaday.
Cannaday said the online courses will probably be used most by students from Humboldt, Johnson, Open School, Creative Arts, Como Park and Gordon Parks high schools because they either don’t have large AP course offerings or, in the case of Como Park, there may be a specific class that just a few students want to take.
Those enrolled in the online courses will have required meeting times with a teacher and a mentor assigned to them.
Another “cool online piece” of the grant, Cannaday said, is an AP test-preparation program. It will give students test-taking strategies, allow them to practice taking an AP test, and give them access to experts online so they can ask real people questions they might have.
“This is new,” she said. “It’s the first online formalized test prep where students have access to previous test questions that the College Board has used on the exams, and they get an e-password so they can work on it at home.”
The district’s goals with this grant are to increase the number of students taking college-level courses, increase the number of students who take the AP exams at the end of the courses, and increase the scores on those exams to 3 or higher. Colleges look for scores of 3 or higher if students want to receive college credit for taking the classes. Often, Cannaday said, select schools want a score of 4 or 5. Even if a student doesn’t get a great score on an AP exam, the student “has still been exposed to what a college exam looks like,” she said. “There is a lot of value in that.”
Online Learning Isn’t New
The online AP courses aren’t St. Paul’s first move into online learning. Online courses were offered during last year’s summer school session, said Traci Gauer, director of Alternative Learning Programs. “We offered language arts, social studies, we even had an art history class, economics, online computer applications class.”
Many of the students who participated needed the course credits to graduate; either they had failed a class or were not able to fit a required class into their schedule.
The district also offered online test-prep classes last fall for students who needed to retake the state Graduation Required Assessment for Diploma (GRAD) tests in writing, reading and math.
Gauer said the district has also offered online courses to students at Creative Arts High School, an alternative school for students interested in visual, performing and media arts. “We have a population of 110 students at that school,” she noted. “It’s hard to offer lots of different classes.” The online courses offered there have been successful, Gauer said. Students take the courses during their school day. “There can be a group [of students] in the computer lab taking all different classes,” she said. “This works out well. We can give them more offerings.”
Gauer said the district is trying to develop a long-term online course strategy. “We are looking at the future. We are trying to build the district strategy by building programs that work,” she said. “There’s a lot of planning involved.”