The standard for students at the top of classes coming out of Archer High School has set the bar for schools in Gwinnett. But the goal of the program is to show it’s available for all students, not just a reward for the top performers.
Multiple students in this year’s senior class at Archer are in the midst of finishing credit in 19 and 20 Advanced Placement classes. During a time when the incoming freshman profile for many top state colleges and universities is earning AP credit from at least six or seven classes, Archer students and teachers have made it a way of life to double and triple those numbers.
The goal is for students to look better on paper than the average freshman profile of their dream school. That means SAT score, grade-point-average and AP credits.
Most Archer students take an AP class as a freshman, one or two as a sophomore, two or three as a junior and three or four as a senior. The typical student would exceed the top state colleges and university average, while students ticketed for Ivy League schools are in the 12-15 class range, Archer teachers said.
The reality is the AP class credit is only one piece of a growing college resume that includes essays, a high school transcript, extra-curricular activity involvement, leadership examples and volunteer service.
They key, some students said, is teachers working with them to balance study time on subjects that are more time-consuming than others that may come easier.
It may be individualizing the syllabus, or giving an added layer of support, but the result in recent years is that Archer’s AP program has broken down the stigma that students are only good at college prep classes, or once you’re in a college prep class, you can’t move your way up.
It’s part of a culture at Archer that promotes the AP program that in 2016 had just under 1,700 exams taken by more than 900 students in 22 different courses. Archer has lifted its number of exams given each year from 269 in 2010 to 1,966 in 2016. Similarly, test-takers have jumped from 204 to 900 in the same period, while tests passed grew from 56 to 1,299.
The program last year earned regional recognition as three siblings earned awards as the top AP educators in the South. It was the second time the brother in the crew received the award. Joni Jameson, John Jameson and Kimberly Heglund were recognized by the College Board as the 2016 AP Professionals of the Year for the Southern Region. The three teachers have presented at the Georgia Department of Education’s AP Regional Workshops each fall for about a dozen years.
They appreciate the award, and especially enjoyed seeing their mother treat it as if it were an Oscar or Emmy. But for a program that is largely internal to most schools, having an outside group applaud their efforts took some getting used to.
The siblings came to Archer starting in the 2013-14 school year after they’d worked together at Berkmar for nearly a decade.
Key elements to building the program, the teachers said, was open AP enrollment for all students, and to support students in transitioning from high school challenge to college challenge. And also identifying the students who don’t find the initial challenge enough of a challenge and push them further.
“We want them to be very successful with the most challenging courses and course load they can handle,” Joni said. “They’re still high school kids, but they need to push their academics here as far as they can so that they can go where they want to go next, which is the real goal.”
Added Heglund, “We kind of train our kids to know that they’re not the average kid. And the only way they can possibly show the college they’re not the average kid is not do the average kid’s schedule. So we give them a chance to show they’re a cut above.”
They said that having the same philosophy of challenging kids and believing that they can all excel makes it easy. In the midst of a large bureaucratic system, AP offers a platform for purpose.
“When you believe that so fiercely, it’s kind of contagious,” Joni said. “Then we have some very close colleagues that share that, so we feel like a family.”
Added John, “When you get through all the chaos and change, and when you get through the gamesmanship and resume-building is in the background, it’s somewhat liberating that teachers and students actually have a target that may very well represent something worth pursuing and pursue it in a way with why we feel like we entered the profession: Teach kids how to develop their own powers towards something they’re interested in by being in our own discipline.”
The program’s growth and depth is designed in a way to promote students excelling in several classes at a time.
“I organize my class in a way that my kid can be successful in mine, and also have time for the other ones, too, so we’re not being selfish with our time,” Heglund said. “If we operated independently, ‘My class is all that matters,’ these kids would have horrible GPAs, they’d be stressed and they’d all be crying every day.”
The Archer program’s success does not mean other Gwinnett schools are in its shadow, because several have also been recognized in recent years for work with AP coureses, including Collins Hill, Grayson, and Norcross high schools.
The teachers said the movement to make AP classes more mainstream began about 15 years ago, but only inside the last decade has a visible difference in the college-wide culture shown those promotion efforts.
Early in John’s teaching career, AP was seen as a reward for students who didn’t need it.
In part, the promotion of AP was seen as a way to offer common ground and avoid a sort of academic segregation, John said.
“Really what you do is develop talent, rather than find talent and reward it,” he said. “You have an opportunity to show people: Here is a thing you can do. You can develop talents toward that, and then it opens doors for you.”
The siblings admit that AP was not exactly on their radar as high school students at Brookwood High themselves from mid-1980s to early 1990s. John was enrolled in one AP class in high school in Joni said her driving force to become a teacher was because she didn’t enjoy high school.
In those days, and when Joni began her teaching career about 25 years ago at Winder-Barrow High School, many schools in the area offered four AP classes. The siblings agreed it was at least typical, and may have bordered on aggressive, for its offerings at the time.
“It was not something kids did, it didn’t matter what their college aspirations were,” Joni said. “AP was like ‘Why would you do that, that’s extra work, as opposed to it’s part of something bigger.’”
She said John got her more involved in AP than she was initially and, along with Principal Ken Johnson, taught her how to measure it in a more meaningful way, and build the program.
“Seeing something that was larger than life,” Joni said. “That was probably because I didn’t like high school.”
Students have said AP offers a chance to learn about something they’re interested in, in an in-depth way.