Incentives paying off for students in AP program in Harford

Math and science initiative targets military families; Aberdeen and Havre de Grace see scores rise

  • Left to right, Stephanie Jones, 15, Emily Byers, 15, and Alexandra Sterling, 15, work on graphs in an AP Statistics class at Aberdeen High School. The school has had success getting students to pass the AP exams in math and science.
Left to right, Stephanie Jones, 15, Emily Byers, 15, and Alexandra… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
February 11, 2014|By Liz Bowie, The Baltimore Sun

It was an uncommon partnership for a Maryland school and an aerospace company.

In 2012, Boeing agreed to pump hundreds of thousands of dollars into one Harford County high school to improve Advanced Placement achievement in hopes that students — many the children of military and defense contracting families — would pursue science and math courses in college.

Aberdeen High School teachers and students were paid $100 for every passing score on an Advanced Placement test. The number of science and math classes increased, and teachers underwent intensive training during the summer.

A year later, the school posted remarkable gains on the college-level tests. Even as enrollment in the classes rose, so did the pass rates. Last year, 64.7 percent of students enrolled in an AP class passed the tests, up from 43 percent the year before.

On Tuesday, the College Board released scores that showed Maryland is No. 1 in the nation for the eighth consecutive year for the percentage of its high school graduates who passed at least one test. Boosting the state's high ranking are schools like Aberdeen that encourage strong students to take more Advanced Placement courses.

Aberdeen High accounted for 12 percent of the entire state's math, science and English increase in AP passing scores for 2012-2013 school year and also accounted for 9 percent of the increase in AP passing scores in math and science for girls.

Aberdeen is one of hundreds of schools across the country taking part in the National Math and Science Initiative, a nonprofit that aims to get more students prepared to take rigorous college courses in math and science. Aberdeen was the NMSI's school of the year in 2013.

Boeing made a contribution to the Texas-based nonprofit, which was looking for schools that served a lot of military families and were enthusiastic about implementing all aspects of the program.

Aberdeen was never a struggling school, but educators believed students there weren't living up to their potential.

"We wanted to open the door for kids to push themselves academically. Believing in themselves was the first step," said Principal Michael O'Brien.

Some students said getting $100 for a passing score was not as much a motivator as the prospect of getting college credit if they earned a high score. But others, like senior Marcos Colon-Pappaterra, 17, said the money helped motivate them. The program paid for half the $89 test fee, and so Colon-Pappaterra could net $55 for each one he passed.

Colon-Pappaterra said he also "decided I wanted to work hard for my future." He earned all passing test scores, including two scores of 5, the highest score possible, in calculus and English.

"I think the kids are a lot more serious now," said another student, Delaney Todd, 17, a senior who has taken one AP class a year.

In addition to Aberdeen High, Havre de Grace High, also in Harford County, recently joined the NMSI program with a $25,000-a-year contribution from the Department of Defense. NMSI has spread the AP program to 550 schools in 22 states, with contributions from benefactors.

Boeing and the Department of Defense set aside money for the program because it is also designed to lessen the stress on military families who are making frequent moves by ensuring that their schools have similar programs.

"The stress the many moves they have to make is mitigated because they are going to a NMSI school," said Gregg Fleisher, NMSI chief academic officer.

Boeing and the Department of Defense were given the option of investing in schools in several states, but chose Aberdeen and Havre de Grace because the administrators and teachers there had embraced the program, according to Fleisher.

As part of the program, Boeing agreed to invest about $150,000 to $200,000 a year for three years in Aberdeen, according to NMSI. The amount of the investment depends on the number of students who earn a passing score.

Last year, 558 students at Aberdeen took an AP exam, up from 294 the year before.

About 20 percent of the donation goes to the financial incentives, but perhaps as important, Aberdeen students said, was tutoring paid for through the program. Students received extra help every other Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

While the Saturday sessions were voluntary, O'Brien said they have been well-attended. Students said they are useful because they get lessons from college professors and other faculty who aren't their teachers but have a deep knowledge of the subject.

Students said hearing a concept they are struggling with explained in a different way by another teacher helped them better understand the material.

In addition, their teachers were available to give them help for four hours each week before or after school. Teachers were paid more money for the extra hours they worked, and they received in-depth AP training for a week each summer.

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