Lack of AP class funding in rural Arizona

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Many rural Arizona schools lack the proper funds to start or expand their AP programs, including Tombstone High School, which lacks any such classes, and educators say this can be a serious detriment to students preparing for college.

“We used to want the kids to go to college and be successful,” said Andrea Overman, Douglas High School principal. “Now we have to think more globally… That’s where the value of the AP classes could be, that they really level the playing field for our kids in a small community.”

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More funding could help these smaller schools grow and maintain their Advanced Placement programs. In Gov. Doug Ducey’s State of the State address, he proposed $6 million for incentives of college prep programs such as AP classes to help students prepare and succeed in college.

Rural schools in Southeastern Arizona average about nine AP classes per school, whereas larger schools in Phoenix and Tucson average 20 per school. Chandler Hamilton, the largest high school in Arizona, has 24 AP class offerings.

Tombstone High School does not offer AP classes, but it has a number of different programs to prepare students for life after graduation. The programs consist of after-school tutoring with teachers, one-on-one advising four times a week, and providing students information tailored to their plans after graduation.

“I think we do a good job of giving students what they need to be successful, whether it’s college or a career,” said David Thursby, Tombstone High School principal.

The preparation starts during freshman year when students are given tests to see if they have any gaps in their knowledge. If they do, the students work with teachers to fill in these gaps, bringing them up to speed so they can graduate on time.

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Tombstone High School’s mascot mural. Photo by Shannon Higgins/Arizona Sonora News

Thursby said they also connect students with scholarships, and make sure they have the classes they need to graduate and to prepare for college. For the students who aren’t planning on going to college, the school gives them information about trade schools.

With these programs, Thursby said he doesn’t think Tombstone High School lacks in comparison with what AP classes do to prepare their students.

“We’d like to offer AP classes, but our student body is so small and our teachers are spread so thin, it’d be hard to cover AP with regular classes,” said Thursby. “If money wasn’t an issue, AP classes would definitely be an option.”

For Douglas High School, a lack of money keeps it from introducing new classes, according to Overman. Although the school has five AP classes with a new one being introduced next year, the financial costs of the program have slowed the school’s progress.

“In order to have an AP program, you have to provide a curriculum, which is not cheap,” Overman said.

Douglas High School has been able to add more AP classes funded by a competitive federal grant through NAU called the Gaining Early Awareness for Undergraduate Programs (GEARUP) program. This grant is currently in year four out of the seven and has provided roughly $544,000 so far.

This grant not only helps fund AP classes, but also summer school, training for teachers, trips to visit colleges, and helps to bring in mentors for the students, all of which Overman said has helped prepare students for college.

“We’re about 125 miles away from Tucson, so they need to know what they’ll be exposed to when they leave what’s a very small community,” Overman said. “I think the AP classes really help prepare them for the kind of studying and the level of rigor they’ll be required to perform at when they do go to a university.”

Like Douglas, Buena High School is also receiving grant money to help expand the school’s AP program. This competitive grant is funded by Northup Grumman and will provide the school about $706,000 until the 2017-2018 academic year. Melinda Escarcega, Buena assistant principal, said the school expanded its math and science AP class offerings because of the grant.

“I graduated from a rural high school with a class of 78 students,” Escarcega said. “It would have been nice to have a leg up coming into college.”

Having enough money to start an AP program is also only half the battle of making it effective. Bisbee High School’s first year of AP classes was possible because of their dedicated teachers.

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Outside of Bisbee High School. Photo by Shannon Higgins/Arizona Sonora News

“A program is nothing without an effective teaching staff or people who honestly feel dedication to serving kids,” said Laura Miller, Bisbee High principal.

Retaining its faculty and teaching staff is a vital factor in whether Bisbee will be able to sustain and grow its AP program. More funding in the district could help the school provide more materials for the students and staff to prepare for AP tests. Miller said the teachers take on these more demanding positions without any stipend for the additional work load.

However, there are questions of whether these programs fully benefit the school and its students. Challenge Success, an expansion of the Stressed Out Students Program at Stanford University dedicated to finding a more effective path to success for students, conducted a study in 2013 to see if the AP program lives up to its promise to students of preparing them for college. Part of the study focused on the success AP students had in college and questioned the causality most people associate between the two.

Miller said she could see how criticism would arise if these classrooms don’t have effective teachers. For AP course offerings to be beneficial, Challenge Success states they need to be part of a broader initiative involving “changes in professional development and the overall curricular sequence to better prepare students for college-level work.” Colleges vary with their requirements for accepting college credit based off the test, and some students who do earn credit retake the course anyways, contributing to the question of the program’s college worth.

Even with this criticism, schools still look to implement a rigorous curriculum to help students graduate on time and start thinking about college, but many schools are held back by financial constraints.

The idea of spreading the current staff too thin is discussed in Challenge Success’s study. While these more intensive classes may help those driven enough to take them, it can result in larger classes for the regular subjects and leave the other students overlooked and underprepared for graduation.

Similar to Tombstone, Willcox High School currently has one AP class, but does not have enough staff and resources to cover more AP classes along with regular ones due to funding.

In the near future, Tombstone will start looking at implementing AP classes. Until that time, Thursby said the staff at the school and the supportive school board make a difference in making sure students are prepared for life after high school.

“We do the best we can with what we have,” said Thursby.

Shannon Higgins is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at shannonhiggins@email.arizona.edu.

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