Educators study Berkmar's approach to AP exams

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

LILBURN — A few years ago, Emerson Salmeron was told he wouldn’t make it in high school.

The native Spanish speaker was learning to speak English, and he was told his dialect would be a barrier to his success.

He proved his naysayers wrong.

Last year, Salmeron was one of six freshmen in the state of Georgia named Advanced Placement Scholars for passing three AP tests. Typically, high school freshmen only take one AP test — if they take any at all.

In all, five of those six freshmen, including Salmeron, hailed from the same high school: Berkmar.

On Monday, educators from throughout the state — and a few from South Carolina and Tennessee — visited the Lilburn high school to learn about the school’s approach to getting students involved in AP courses.

The school uses what it calls the stretch performance initiative to encourage students to take rigorous courses, principal Ken Johnson said. In 2008, Berkmar won the College Board Inspiration Award for its efforts to improve student access to these courses.

Even though the school’s populations of minority and economically disadvantaged students has increased, Berkmar has also steadily increased the number of AP exams students pass each year.

The stretch performance initiative is all about getting students to take more challenging classes even if they think they aren’t capable of doing so, Johnson said. Once the students get in the classes, the teachers provide support to help students experience success.

“You’ve got to let them in the class,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to give them a crack at it. AP success is not about making a 3, 4 or 5 (passing scores) on the exam. It’s about taking a kid and helping that kid to be successful.

“Just because the kid has a single parent at home, or no one in the family has gone to college, or maybe they moved here from the mountains of Mexico and English is a second language (doesn’t mean they can’t be successful). You can start piling on (excuses) if you want to, but we’re not going to.

“It’s about eliminating the predictability and disproportionality of which student groups occupy the highest and lowest achievement categories.”

In all, Berkmar High had 178 AP Scholars last year, including one of two State AP Scholars. That award is presented to one male and one female student in each state and the District of Columbia with scores of 3 or higher on the greatest number of AP exams and the highest average score on all AP exams taken. The Berkmar student, currently in her first year at Harvard University, earned the state “Scholar” title after mastering 17 AP exams.

Throughout the district, 2,263 students earned the honor for their high performance on college-level work while in high school.