College-level Advanced Placement classes are hard to come by in a handful of Charleston County high schools, and students in those schools often struggle to pass those exams.
In six of the district's 13 high schools, fewer than five students earned passing scores on the exams last year. Most students who pass the tests attend one of three high schools; the success rates at Academic Magnet, School of the Arts and Wando are more than 75 percent.
The school district hopes to create more equity by expanding its AP offerings at high schools with three or fewer AP courses. High schools typically haven't received money dedicated for AP teachers, but the school board has committed about $900,000 to provide two AP teachers at seven schools this fall - Baptist Hill, Burke, Garrett Academy, Lincoln, Military Magnet, North Charleston, and St. John's.
"I think this is an important commitment because we have done a very credible job in the last seven years of addressing low-performing students, and we have to address the very capable students and make sure they're not being forgotten in some of our schools," said Superintendent Nancy McGinley. "That is what this is about."
AP classes are rigorous courses offered through the College Board. Teachers must follow College Board guidelines on curriculum and resources. Students who score a three or higher on the final exam "pass" and can earn college credit; five is the top score.
Some high schools have had a hard time offering AP classes because any additional teacher allocations go toward providing remedial instruction to students, McGinley said. If schools offer more AP classes, officials expect fewer students to transfer out of district schools.
"Many people equate AP course offerings with successful schools," said St. John's High Principal Lee Runyon. "We're certainly appreciative of the opportunity to gain some additional funding to grow our AP course offerings."
The Johns Island school had one of its nearly 300 students take and pass the AP exam last spring. Runyon said he's put more of an emphasis on dual enrollment classes, which enabled students to earn college credit through Trident Technical College. Unlike the AP exam, students earn dual enrollment credit by demonstrating competency through the duration of the course, and they don't have to pass a standardized exam.
"For students who may struggle with being great high-stakes test-takers, they would benefit from dual enrollment," Runyon said.
St. John's High has made gains during the past few years, moving from an "at risk" state rating in 2011 to "good" in 2013. Its improvement rating has been "excellent" for three years. Its students are far more prepared for AP coursework, and it's incumbent upon the school to "support the continued growth of our students," Runyon said.
The school's students can take one AP class this year, and it's being offered through a distance learning pilot out of West Ashley High.
"With this additional allocation, we can continue to address the needs of our lower level students, but at the same time, we'll now be able to address the needs of our kids who are high achievers," he said.
AP Academy at Burke
McGinley said she wants to give neighborhood schools more options so students can stay in those schools. Every high school needs those advanced classes, she said.
"What we're trying to build is some consistency of offerings so parents aren't choosing to avoid certain schools because they don't offer AP," she recently told the school board.
This isn't the first time the district has tried to boost Advanced Placement courses in high-need schools. Since 2008, the district has invested more than $1.2 million into an AP Academy at Burke High, an at-risk downtown school that enrolls mostly high-poverty students.
The change hasn't stopped the school from losing enrollment. And, of the 376 AP exams that students took, just 10 students have earned passing scores since 2009.
Principal Maurice Cannon said the courses are a worthwhile investment because students are exposed to more of the academic rigor that they will experience in college.
"Not all of our students are performing at levels of remediation," he said. "Contrary to popular opinion, Burke does have students who come with a high level of academic aptitude."
Burke High junior Xavier Curry has taken three AP courses, and he said he's glad the school will receive more AP funding this fall. The school has offered only English and social studies AP classes, but his strengths are math and science. He said he hopes the school will be able to offer AP classes in those subjects.
"You just take it to another level (in AP)," he said.
Some school board members questioned the logic in the district's recommendation, and board member Elizabeth Moffly said she'd rather see schools offer dual credit courses, because that doesn't involve a standardized exam to receive credit.
"If something isn't working, you can't make it work by giving them more of it," she said.
Lou Martin, the district's associate superintendent for high schools, said students who don't pass AP classes but take the course still are exposed to more challenging work.
The three district schools that have had the most success in students' participating in and passing AP tests - Academic Magnet High, School of the Arts, and Wando High - will not receive any extra money to offer AP.
Coats, who made the suggestion that eliminated those schools from receiving the extra AP money, said the district has a finite amount of money and it has to prioritize spending. Those schools and Stall High have been taken care of, and this was a way to create equity in other schools, she said.
Board members Moffly, Tom Ducker and Todd Garrett voted against the district adding AP teachers to the seven schools.
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or (843) 937-5546.