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Minority Students Making Big Advances
Hispanics and blacks in South Florida high schools had some of the best scores in the nation on advanced placement tests in subjects from art to calculus.
BY MATTHEW I. PINZUR
January 14, 2005
Ten South Florida high schools led the nation in the number of minority students who passed advanced placement exams, the challenging tests that are a widely accepted gauge of academic achievement, The Herald has learned.
Eight senior highs in Miami-Dade County and two in Broward County boasted the strongest minority-student performance in at least one subject last year, besting nearly 15,000 other schools.
''It's an incredible success story,'' said Sonia Diaz, Miami-Dade's newly appointed deputy superintendent for curriculum and instruction, who wants to expand the AP program in the district. 'We have to see how it is they taught the courses, what their particular approach was that supported these students' success.''
The accolades will be published later this month in a report by The College Board, which oversees the AP program, but individual schools were notified in late December. The challenging courses are taught at a college level and culminate in a standardized test. Students who earn a score of 3 or higher on its 5-point scale can receive college credit at most universities.
'IT CAN BE DONE'
At Felix Varela Senior High in West Kendall, for example, more Hispanic students passed the English literature and human geography exams than at any other school. Coral Park Senior in Westchester led the nation in Hispanics passing chemistry and U.S. history.
''Most of the families at Coral Park are close to middle class, and this means for them there is a chance that it can be done,'' said Pedro Alcocer, a father who has served on the school's Parent-Teacher Association for four years. ``We're not the last in the queue -- we can be the first, and it's a major thing.''
The College Board would not discuss the report before its Jan. 25 release, so it was impossible to determine whether any other school district had comparable results. It's the first time such a report has been compiled, so there is no previous data for comparison.
The results came as no surprise at Coral Reef Senior High School in Southwest Miami-Dade, which led the country in Hispanic performance in European history and both black and Hispanic performance in English language.
''If you want to get ahead, the only way is to take an AP class,'' said Janelle Costa, a 16-year-old student in Christina Strickland's AP English course, which is hardly the traditional lecture.
The desks are arranged haphazardly around Strickland, a 25-year-old whose braces make her blend in with her students. She alternately teases and praises them, guiding a discussion of a 19th century essay about being a female writer.
When the students groan that the work is too hard, predicting doom on the spring's standardized AP test, she reminds them that they have plenty of time to work -- including Saturday study sessions.
''Hate me now, love me later,'' she chanted.
At Coral Reef, like many top AP performers, hard-driving teachers and a self-perpetuating campus culture push students to enroll in AP classes instead of less demanding courses.
''Here, the teachers try to put you in the highest level they can,'' said 16-year-old Leslie Puzo, another Coral Reef student.
Coral Reef is an all-magnet school; even though most of the programs have no academic admission requirements, all the students are there by choice. Most of the schools cited in The College Board report, however, were standard high schools.
Barbara Goleman Senior High in Miami Lakes, where nearly half the students come from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, led in Hispanic performance in world history.
At Stranahan High School in Fort Lauderdale, which led the nation in black students passing the psychology exam, 43 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches because of low family income. Before enrolling them in the AP class, psychology teacher Maria Formoso interviews students and warns them about the challenge.
''I don't water it down,'' she said. ``They have summer reading assignments before the course even starts.''
Across the country, numerous recent studies have encouraged that strategy by finding that students who take AP classes are more likely to succeed in college -- regardless of whether they actually pass the AP exam.
'When you start telling students, `Yes, you can achieve,' it works,'' said Miami-Dade School Board Vice Chairman Robert Ingram.
He said the results should encourage other schools to more aggressively push advanced classes. A Herald investigation last month found that high-poverty urban schools offer far fewer electives, arts and advanced classes than their counterparts in the suburbs.
''Too often we put out a self-fulfilling prophecy that students cannot do,'' he said. ``Even though they can, the consequence becomes that they can't.''
The number of AP exams given in both counties has skyrocketed in recent years. That push to move more students into AP classes has depressed the rate of passing as students once considered too marginal for the rigorous curriculum are put in those courses. Miami-Dade's pass rate dipped from 48.8 percent in 2001 to 45.5 last year, and Broward's from 60.6 percent in 2001 to 51.8 percent in 2003.
''We have almost an open-door policy,'' said Cheryl Conito, Stranahan's senior magnet counselor. ``Students who really want to take courses, they can take the courses.''
Herald staff writer Amy Sherman contributed to this report.