Students, teachers reap the rewards of hard work

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By John Barnhart

Paul C. Nichols, president of Virginia Advanced Study Strategies (VASS), stopped in Bedford last week to talk about advanced placement course.
    Nichols, who spoke at Liberty High School, was on a swing through school divisions participating in a program that his organization administers. He said that taking advanced placement (AP) courses is important for college bound students. When students apply for admission to college, the schools don’t just look at GPA, they look at how rigorous the courses that the prospective student took, he said. In an information packet that he provided, it states that the University of Virginia would rather see a C in an AP class on a high school transcript than an A in a non-AP class. The reason for this, according to Nichols, is that AP courses better prepare students for college work.
    The students who take AP courses in Bedford County take a national standardized test making it possible to evaluate students from different schools all over the United States.
    But Nichols wasn’t here just to give a talk to students. He came bearing checks, thanks to a $125 million grant from Exxon Mobil and grants from other American industries. Students receive a $100 check for each AP class in which they received a qualifying score. The teachers also received a $100 check for each student in their class that had a qualifying score. As a  result, Nichols left a nice chunk of change behind, a total of $137,000 for Bedford County students and teachers. The students received a total of $32,000 while the AP teachers in the county received a total of $105,000.
    These cash payments are only the tip of the iceberg of what the industry grants make possible, according to Nichols. He said that he has five specialists on his staff that conduct training and help teachers carry out the AP curriculum goals. Last year, they provided training for about 850 teachers in Virginia. VASS also coordinates the purchase of extra lab equipment.
    The possibility of earning cash, now, isn’t the only reward that students successfully completing AP courses receive. Nichols points out that a student who has taken AP courses in math, science and English, and done well, aren’t going to need remedial work when they get to college. Students who have not taken AP courses, and who were in high school classes that were not sufficiently rigorous, could find themselves having to take remedial classes in college. This could delay graduation and certainly add cost to an already expensive proposition.
    “Through the No Child Left Behind national focus, and the focus on standards of learning (SOL) in Virginia, we have seen dramatic increase in student achievement with minimum competencies,” Nichols stated. “However, these minimum competencies have obviously left our children unprepared for success in universities and the global marketplace.”
    VASS is part of a national program, the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI), to do something about this. NMSI, the organization that is actually receiving the industry grants, looked for states that had organizations that could implement its goals. Virginia was one of the first six states it chose. VASS, in turn, picked 14 high schools to start with, and Bedford County’s three high schools were among that number.
    “Our scores in math and science have been the very best,” Nichols commented.
    These 14 high schools, referred to by VASS as “Cohort 1 schools,” are entering their third year in the program. All three Bedford County high schools have seen increases in the number of students making qualifying scores on national AP tests in math, science and English.
    Jefferson Forest High School went up from 152 students with qualifying scores to 202 this year. Liberty High School went up from 27 to 70 and Staunton River High School went from 47 students with qualifying scores to 58.    
    After the presentation, several students taking AP courses at Liberty High School offered comments.
    “It increases your chance of getting into college,” said Emily Overfelt, a senior. Overfelt plans on studying graphic design and is headed for Savannah College of Art and Design after graduating next  year.
    Taron Ware, another student, is taking AP physics this year and took AP English. Ware said it improved his study habits.
    “I wanted to be more prepared,” said Kyle Krcmaric, explaining why he’s taking AP courses.
    “I heard about how you could get money passing tests,” commented Jasmine Jordan. Jordan’s post high school plans include not only a four-year degree, but post-graduate education, culminating in a PhD. in chemistry.
    Most of the these students had already heard of high school graduates starting college and having to take remedial classes. They all want to avoid this.