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AP courses gain students at York County high schools

More of York County's public high school students took Advanced Placement courses in 2011 than in years past, according to the latest national report.

Several schools saw the number of students taking at least one AP course jump significantly in the last three years.

Northwestern High's AP enrollment tripled between 2009 and 2011. It nearly tripled at York Comprehensive High in the same period.

Nation Ford High saw the number of students taking at least one AP exam double in that time. South Pointe High's AP enrollment nearly doubled.

While exam pass rates dipped at some schools, educators said the benefits of exposing more students to challenging work trump the prestige of a high pass rate, which can result from allowing only top students to take tests.

AP courses are intended to offer college-level work to high-schoolers. Classes in a variety of subjects prepare students for national exams. Students who perform well - scoring a 3, 4 or 5 - can earn college credit.

But even students who don't pass benefit, educators said.

"The experience of taking the course is going to much better prepare you for college," Nation Ford High Principal Beverley Bowman said. "If everybody's passing, not every student that needs to be there is enrolled."

Across South Carolina, AP participation rates were up, according to the Education Department. But the share of students who passed the exams remained low.

The state ranks 21st in the nation for students scoring proficient on an AP exam at 16.5 percent, short of the national average of 18.1 percent.

Boosting enrollment

At South Pointe High in Rock Hill, Principal Al Leonard and his staff work to push advanced courses, which include AP and the International Baccalaureate program.

They spread the word around campus and target students who excel in mid-level courses, known as "college prep." Those students are encouraged to push themselves and attempt an advanced course.

Former students speak to underclassmen about the benefits of taking the courses. One advantage is the heavier weight of an AP or IB course on a student's grade-point average.

A grade of B in an AP course can be worth as much as an A in a college prep course.

Assistant Principal Elissa Cox meets with students and helps them find courses that best fit their goals. The school has an advanced studies coordinator who runs support groups where the teens can ask questions and share concerns about difficulties and the work load.

As a result, the portion of South Pointe students enrolled in at least one advanced course is growing steadily.

Leonard believes teens' experience in the courses has made them better students, which in turn makes more of them eligible for academic scholarships. The amount of scholarship money offered to South Pointe students also has grown.

Since South Pointe opened, Leonard said, "we had a vision of kids taking rigorous courses."

When Nation Ford High in Fort Mill opened in 2007, there was no senior class. Forty-six students were enrolled in three AP classes.

This year, the school offers nine AP classes in which 260 students are enrolled.

"Next year, we will increase AP enrollment again when we add AP Psychology and AP Environmental Science," Bowman said.

York Comprehensive High puts a premium on boosting AP enrollment.

In an area where more than 60 percent of students come from low-income homes, the school district covers the fees that students would otherwise have to pay to enroll in advanced courses.

Between AP and dual-credit, which is offered through York Technical College and the University of South Carolina, some 500 of the school's 1,470 students are enrolled in at least one upper-level class, Principal Diane Howell said.

"We've really gone after it because our goal has been to promote a college-going culture," Howell said. "We've had many children who would not be in these courses if they had to pay for it."

At Rock Hill High, IB has proved more popular than AP.

Rock Hill's three high schools are the only ones in the county that offer IB.

Rock Hill High has far more students in IB courses than South Pointe and Northwestern, which have considerably more AP students than Rock Hill.

Rock Hill High Principal Ozzie Ahl said that's partly due to the way AP courses are scheduled at the school. AP classes are generally offered during second semester, and students often are encouraged to take a pre-requisite class as preparation.

"In a lot of ways, that creates scheduling conflicts," Ahl said. IB has been easier for students to build schedules around.

Teachers promote the benefit of taking advanced classes, he said.

"I'd love to see a climb," Ahl said. "To see all students take at least one IB, AP or dual-credit class."