For many years, Chelsea High School (CHS) wasn’t considered the kind of place where college-level Advanced Placement (AP) courses could be offered.
Struggles with language, social issues and poverty seemed to be too big a barrier to overcome for urban kids like those at CHS – at least when it came to taking and passing such difficult classes.
That, however, was before anyone gave the kids at CHS a chance.
Now that they’ve had a chance, they’ve turned the above sentiment upside down.
CHS Principal Joe Mullaney told the Record recently that Chelsea was one of only 46 districts in Massachusetts to receive the College Board’s 2012 AP District Honor Roll award – with Chelsea being one of only three urban schools to put that notch in its belt.
“They’re really excited where we’ve come as a district,” he said. “This is the third year for the honor and they’re really looking at access to AP for minority students and underserved students – those with free and reduced lunch status. It’s not just the access in Chelsea, but also our success rate. A lot of folks felt AP was something that should be closed off to kids on the margins – that it was too challenging for some kids. We’ve proven that wrong.”
The other urban districts honored were Boston and Revere, while the rest of the list is dotted with suburban districts like Marblehead, Ashland and Danvers.
The award is specifically for districts that expand access to AP courses while also improving the percent of students scoring a 3 or higher on AP tests. AP is run by the College Board (the same folks who administer the SAT test) and is a rigorous academic program that offers more than 30 courses in a wide range of subjects and college-level assessments developed and scored by college and university faculty members. A score of 3 or higher on an AP exam represents the score point that is predictive of college success and college graduation.
CHS offers 13 AP classes per year, including Calculus, Chemistry, and Psychology.
Mullaney said Chelsea High is very unique in that it is one of the only districts to receive the AP Award while having a high level of minority and low-income populations.
“We’re one of only a few districts to have 30 percent or greater minority enrollment and also 30 percent or greater free and reduced lunch enrollment,” he said. “There are a number of districts like that, but Chelsea and Boston are meeting these challenges and winning awards. There are so many challenges that come with low-income and minority status for these students.”
Mullaney credited former CHS Principal Morton Orlov with laying the groundwork for bringing more AP participation to CHS. That was a cornerstone of his administration, and an initiative he pushed statewide even after leaving the school.
Mullaney also said that the work at the middle schools in Chelsea has also prepared students for challenges when they get to the high school.
“It does start at the middle schools and the district has focused on trying to increase skills and awareness of AP for their students,” he said. “They challenge students and they have programs where students can take an accelerated course in math and science. That sets them up well to come to the high school and take difficult classes like these.”
Once at the high school, Mullaney said it is actually word of mouth that pushes more kids into difficult classes. When word spreads how committed the teachers are and how interesting the material is, Mullaney said students get curious.
“I think the commitment that our teachers and pre-AP teachers and actual AP teachers make to students are large components and then students communicating that to their peers is a large part of the trend,” he said. “Sometimes we don’t think about students as savvy consumers who talk about classes to other students, but they are. They actually share quite a bit about AP with their peers and so that means it doesn’t tend to scare anyone away.”
Perhaps the most important part, though, harkens back to the above-mentioned attitudes about urban kids and AP courses – that urban kids couldn’t rise to the challenge. Mullaney said upending that attitude and expecting CHS students to take AP and pass AP courses has brought mountains of change.
“It’s not easy, but we’re doing a great job working with and challenging students here,” he said. “If we hold high expectations for them, they will meet and exceed those expectations. The higher the expectations you have for people in life, the more they will rise to the occasion and meet the challenge. That goes on here every day.”