Pushing students to aim higher

Annapolis teens encouraged to take advanced classes

December 03, 2006|By Ruma Kumar | Ruma Kumar,Special to The Sun

Sharnae Wallace says school has always come easily for her.

When she was in elementary school, she always opted for doing homework in her bedroom over playing with friends.

She struggled a bit in math in middle school but got through it. She has always been on the honor roll with mostly A's and B's.

She again got mostly A's and B's after entering Annapolis High School three years ago, but then her teachers started pushing her to take honors and Advanced Placement courses. It wasn't smooth sailing in these tougher college-level courses. But she persevered, and her top grades in classes such as Advanced Placement English and U.S. history helped her get inducted into the National Honor Society Tuesday.

The junior was one of 68 Annapolis High students inducted, a significant jump in a group of top students that used to average about 30 new members each year.

"When I heard the superintendent say how proud he was to see us up there, it made me feel very proud," Sharnae, 16, said.

Although fights have brought unwelcome media attention to the school this fall, the club's growing size is evidence of a push at Annapolis High to encourage more students, particularly minorities, to take advanced courses. The International Baccalaureate program, which is in its fourth year, is also increasing the ranks of academically strong students at the school.

Other Anne Arundel County high schools - Chesapeake High and Severna Park, for example - have larger clubs. But what's noteworthy about Annapolis High's expansion is that many of its students struggle with poverty and often come to school lacking the background to take advanced courses, principal Donald Lilley said.

To address those challenges, Annapolis High teachers have improved tutoring and support programs to bring the students up academically and get them to National Honor Society caliber.

It's not easy. To be eligible, students must have at least a 3.5 grade point average; at least 20 hours of community service a year; an essay that says how they show character, scholarship, service and leadership in their everyday lives; and two recommendations from teachers.

Slowly, Annapolis High is beginning to see the fruits of a more diverse cadre of academically gifted students. That has been Lilley's dream since he became principal in 2004.

"I did a lot of observing and listening the first few months I was here," Lilley said. "And I saw too few minority faces in the advanced courses and in certain clubs like the National Honor Society. I felt that needed to change."

Lilley set out to talk to teachers about identifying students who were borderline - those who didn't necessarily have the best grades but were motivated students who had the ability to take on tougher courses if they received the right support. Students such as Sharnae benefited. Teachers offered tutoring after school, before school and sometimes in the free moments during lunch period.

With that kind of support, students who had been content to stay in regular classes had the courage to take honors and advanced classes, Lilley said.

Lilley doesn't want to stop at academic excellence. He also wants a civic-minded student body. That's where the National Honor Society club steps in. The club is encouraging students to take on ambitious service projects.

Students are responding to that call, said Kimberly Chiang, a government teacher who is the NHS adviser.

Seniors Lelia TahaBurt and Kelsey Rutka have launched a campaign to raise awareness for the political turmoil - and resulting genocide - in the Darfur region of Sudan. They have spoken to classes, passed out ribbons at schoolyard sales and set up displays, and they are hoping to raise money to send to the area.

Another senior, Maroulla Plangetis, organized a Thanksgiving canned food drive at the school that collected 1,400 cans for the poor, Chiang said.

"My ultimate goal is to help them get into college," Lilley said. "Those advanced courses, those examples of leadership and service on their transcript ... those things will help them get there."

That is Sharnae's goal, too. Other than a few cousins, she is the only one in her family with plans to attend college. Her grandfather and father finished high school. Her grandmother and great-grandmother dropped out in elementary school. Her mother attended college but didn't finish.

"I see so many people in my family who dropped out and took jobs working on a farm and other things," Sharnae said. "And I don't want to struggle like they did. I want to be successful in school. I want to get a good job. I want to pay my bills on time and not have to worry about whether I can afford a car or a good home for my family."

That made National Honor Society induction night a milestone for Sharnae. When she sat up there with her classmates, she felt she had met her goals in small measure, she said. She felt proud that she has a 3.6 GPA, that she has been able to juggle two Advanced Placement courses and two honors courses, and that she has been able to keep her grades up while being involved in school and church choirs, singing for civic groups or other churches almost every week.

"I felt like I'm getting where I want to be," she said.

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