The challenges and benefits of AP

High school Advanced Placement (AP) programs have taken a bit of a hit in the media as of late, causing many parents, students and educators to ensure that the benefits of these programs outweigh the pressures put on participants. From limiting entrance, managing the number of courses a child can take, or making sure kids know exactly what they’re in for, local institutions are helping kids navigate the world of the academically talented. In this way, local high schoolers, supported by smart institutions, are leaving school prepared for what lies ahead.

Educating families on advanced placement

In the spring of this year, over 3.4 million AP exams were taken by over 2 million students, according to the College Board. With so many kids taking more than one Advanced Placement course, families must be educated on everything involved, from workload to potential benefits. “We complete a tangible calculation with students to help them make the best decisions about adding AP courses,” says Mary Keenley, head of school at The Willows Academy in Des Plaines, who advises that AP courses typically entail twice as much homework each night as traditional classes. “If sleeping, school, homework and activities add up to more than 24 hours each day, we’ve got to go back to the coursework and eliminate something.”

In addition to helping kids make good decisions, educators at The Willows talk with parents as well, to help them understand that this type of education is not appropriate or necessary in every circumstance. “We try to ascertain the status that AP courses carry,” says Keenley, who adds that the elite subject matter of AP coursework is just not for every child. The curriculum at schools like The Willows is already preparing students for acceptance to and the increased demands of college, and they assist families with limiting AP coursework to situations where it makes sense.

Ensuring good fit

Advanced Placement coursework was initially developed for use in situations where children had mastered traditional coursework and needed an additional challenge. The perceived status of these classes, combined with the emphasis placed on them in terms of college admissions has caused some confusion as to which students should be taking these courses. “Ideally, AP courses make sense for kids who have interests and advanced abilities in the subject matter,” says Keenley. “When these kids have topped out in traditional classes, they need the additional challenge.” But there are other times when it makes sense, too, Keenley advises. “Let’s say you have a kid that just loves history. She may not be the type of student we would normally advise to take AP level classes, but because of her interests, she’ll have a ball in her AP European History class.”

Managing the load

For students that do decide to take on the challenge of AP coursework, entrance to the classes is limited. At The Willows, course admission is restricted, to ensure only those students who should take the class are enrolled. At Latin School in Chicago, students must petition to take more than three advanced placement courses at the same time. Institutions like these that look at each child and each course to determine admission on a case-by-case basis give students the best chance for success.

Delivering the material

One major criticism of Advanced Placement coursework is that it’s very restrictive in terms of curricular freedom and creativity. “Sometimes teachers can be handicapped by AP,” says Elizabeth Pleshette, director of college counseling at Latin School of Chicago. “But at a place like Latin, material can be transformed by a great teacher and excited students.” Each year, Latin’s educators meet to discuss what’s best for the students and the school in terms of AP. “We ask, ‘Is this (course) doing what we want it to be doing?'” says Pleshette. “It’s about having the professional development, the resources and the autonomy to determine if courses match up with what is appropriate to teach in your setting.” When a course makes sense for the school and students, it becomes part of that year’s curriculum.

Reaping the benefits

For students able to manage the added workload associated with AP coursework, or those who crave deeper knowledge in a subject matter, the benefits are numerous. While it’s not necessary at many schools, at some universities students will have a better chance of acceptance if they’ve successfully taken advanced placement coursework. At others, they may earn prerequisite credit or actual credit hours toward graduation. According to Pleshette, in the right situation, AP coursework can definitely ramp up kids’ expectations of the type and kind of college work to expect. “It’s not just about content; it prepares kids for the critical thinking and workload that lies ahead,” Pleshette says. “The thinking family takes this into consideration.”

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