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By Laura Mabry
Students from many Illinois high schools don't have full access to a key opportunity for success: Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Schools without resources to provide this more rigorous path can leave students behind their peers.
During summer 2023, the University of Illinois System will offer – for the first time – Advanced Placement Summer Institutes at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) and University of Illinois Springfield (UIS). By partnering with College Board, the system is helping grow the number of AP teachers across Illinois. While the majority of schools offer some AP courses, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) says nearly two-thirds of districts – mostly in rural areas – did not enroll any AP students last year. Turning that around means more Sparking Change-style experiences that lead to successful pathways for college and careers.
AP courses allow students who score well on AP exams to earn college credits in high school. They gain a lot more.
“High school transcripts tell a strong story. They signal to universities that a student took on the challenge of taking AP courses,” Regional College Board Director Maureen LaRaviere said. “AP helps students build soft skills and confidence by taking on college-level work in a supportive classroom with a teacher they know.”
The system will waive the $650 tuition and $300 room and board cost for teachers from schools where fewer than 10 percent of students complete AP exams. UIS sessions will be June 26-30, and UIUC sessions will be July 10-14. Sign up on the system website by June 5 for UIS and by June 16 for UIUC.
AP in action
Julian Parrott is helping the U of I System launch the endeavor, which is part of the system’s land-grant mission to use public funds to enhance Illinois lives and communities.
“By increasing students’ access to AP courses, they begin to see that the benefits that will impact their whole lives start to accrue in high school,” said Parrott, the system’s senior assistant vice president for academic programs and partnerships.
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That’s certainly been the case at Paris High School in rural Edgar County.
“Our goal is to give our students as much opportunity for more rigorous coursework and college credit as we can,” Principal Mark Cox said. “Our hurdle is we’re a small school. Add the nationwide teacher shortage to the mix, and we just have to make sure we don’t spread our teachers too thin.”
An AP grant from ISBE is helping Paris teachers train to teach AP courses. And it allows students to take AP tests for free. In 2023, most AP exams cost close to $100.
Out of about 520 students in the high school, Cox expects 70 to complete AP texts next school year.
“Even if students don’t pass the test, they still have the class on their transcript,” Cox said. “Our staff knows that to help our students succeed, we have to push and coach and give them opportunities.”
Paris offers AP courses in English literature and composition, calculus, chemistry and U.S. history. Cox is working to add Spanish and computer science, with statistics, physics and biology on the horizon.
Elsewhere in the U of I System, Discovery Partners Institute (DPI) works to forge pathways into computer science and related fields, in part by teaching teachers to increase the availability of AP computer science in Illinois classrooms. The demand for related careers is sky high, but only about 10 percent of districts in the state offer AP computer science. Starting in 2021, DPI partnered closely with UIUC’s College of Education to launch the state’s first virtual Teaching Endorsement in Computer Science. Also, DPI’s Digital Scholars Program partnered with College Board to promote AP computer science, and DPI supported Chicago Public Schools piloting virtual AP computer science coursework.
Cox’s youngest child, the fifth in his family, is a senior taking AP courses this year. His fourth child graduated with 16 college credits. The benefit for families extends beyond the knowledge students gain.
“That’s saving in my pocket,” he said.
Adding AP courses gives Cox’s students more of what larger districts with more funding can provide.
“Opportunities like AP don’t get us to the magnitude of the offerings at a school with 3,000 students, but they get us closer,” Cox said.
Jason Leahy, a former high school principal, leads the Illinois Principals Association. He considers the system’s new role in Advanced Placement essential. His organization will make sure school leaders know about the UIUC and UIS summer sessions and encourage teachers to partner with their administrators to participate.
“Educators should do what they can to build AP programs that provide pathways that help students perform at higher academic levels,” he said.
Leahy’s daughter Emma is grateful AP was available at Glenwood High School in Chatham near Springfield. The UIS first-year student started college with 15 credit hours from her AP work, allowing her to double major in communication and English.
“Taking AP biology and AP statistics during the pandemic was challenging, but our teachers were supportive. They wanted us to earn those credits,” she said.
Raviere says College Board's longstanging Advanced Placement Summer Institutes have been transformational for students and districts, as well as teachers.
“The institutes are a great way to build camaraderie with teachers from around the state, some of whom might also be the sole AP educator in their district,” she said. “We encourage participants to keep in touch and support one another.”
Parrott expects the U of I System to grow this and other programs that help high school students prepare for their next steps.
“We want these students at the U of I System universities, of course. But we really want them to continue their education after high school, wherever that may be, so they can see what they can achieve,” he said.
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