UA students prepare high schoolers for Advanced Placement courses and success in college

By:    Date: 09-09-2014

Through UH 300/NEW 310 CollegeFirst, university students mentor high schoolers and guide them through rigorous math, science and English curricula.



Mechanical engineering major James Orr expected mentoring to be rewarding, but he didn’t count on being so inspired by high schoolers involved in the summer program designed to prepare them for college-level Advanced Placement courses.

“They are very driven to succeed,” Orr said of high school students who give up three weeks of summer vacation in exchange for an intensive crash course in
calculus, English, chemistry or biology.

Orr said CollegeFirst, a nationally unique UA service-learning course, also improved his communication skills and ability to explain concepts to people unfamiliar with them. “Calculus is something that I understand very well, but I quickly realized that just because I understand it does not mean that I can communicate that concept well,” said Orr, a sophomore. “The process of trying to figure out how to explain things in different ways so that other people can understand was a very important lesson for me to learn, a lesson that will serve me well in the professional world.”


CollegeFirst chemistry students perform a lab experiment. ABOVE: A biology student examines a slide.

In 2013, Orr was one of 32 University of Alabama students who helped lead 306 rising high school juniors and seniors in Tuscaloosa, Birmingham and Huntsville through three weeks of demanding academic curriculum.

“All high-school students deserve an opportunity to succeed in rigorous, college-level experiences,” said Stephen Black, director of the UA Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility, which developed the service-learning course. “This initiative recruits successful college students to serve as both tutors and mentors, helping increase the number of area high school students who will be ready not only to attend college, but to excel in college.”

Advanced Placement courses enable high school students to take college-level courses taught by teachers in their high schools. Students who pass AP exams are three times more likely to earn a college degree than those who do not pass, according to the College Board.

In 2008, Alabama ranked 43rd nationally in AP exams taken and 45th in exams passed, according to the College Board. CESR created CollegeFirst in 2010 in partnership with A+
College Ready, a statewide initiative that provides extra test preparation sessions and assistance with AP-exam costs. Shortly after it began in 2008, A+ College Ready almost doubled the number of AP courses offered in participating schools and more than doubled the number of students enrolled.

Untitled2Many of these students, however, were not prepared for AP coursework. CollegeFirst’s pre-AP summer curriculum addresses this issue and ensures students are ready for college-level study the first day of the school year. Due in large part to A+ College Ready, Alabama now leads the nation for growth in high school students making qualifying scores on Advanced Placement exams and ranks second for increases in minority students taking AP courses.

Between 2008 and 2013, qualifying scores rose 118 percent and minority participation increased 198 percent.

Through UH 300/NEW 310 CollegeFirst, UA students spend an initial week during Summer Term I learning how to be tutors and studying issues related to educational disparities and creative educationreform efforts. During the following three weeks of tutoring, college students work to ensure high schoolers learn as much as possible, but also enjoy themselves.

Julia Morris, a senior majoring in secondary education mathematics, said CollegeFirst reaffirmed her decision to become a high school math teacher. “As mentors, we had freedom to work through the material, but also make the experience fun,” Morris said. “We were also able to talk to the students about college and gave them an informal tour of the campus. We took every opportunity we could to answer any questions they had about college and the application process.”

Brittni Williams, a student at Bryant High School in Tuscaloosa, said the mentoring aspect of the program was as beneficial as the academic training. “The mentors were like older
brothers and sisters to us,” she said. “They talked to us not just about calculus, but about college life. I feel better prepared now for both AP calculus and college.”

To learn more about CollegeFirst, visit or contact CESR at or 205-348-6490.