ARTICLE BY OLIVIA GRIDER
Rhianna Brown, a student at Paul Bryant High School in Tuscaloosa, dreams of becoming a veterinarian, but her hopes were clouded when she made a C in her ninth-grade biology class. “That was horrible,” she recalls.
When she heard a free prep class was being offered at The University of Alabama the summer before she was to begin Advanced Placement biology, Brown jumped at the chance to improve her understanding – even though she anticipated a dull experience. “I kind of thought it would be sitting down and doing a lot of paperwork,” she recalls. “But we were actually doing labs all the time, which is really fun. It wasn’t what I expected at all, but it was a good surprise.”
Brown, now an 11th grader, says her favorite lab involved enzymes. “I remember learning about enzymes in school, but I never understood,” she says. “Doing the lab and hearing people explain it made enzymes click for me. I enjoyed all the lessons, but that one made me think I could be good at biology.”
Brown adds that being able to ask as many questions as she wanted and learning test-taking strategies left her feeling well prepared for her fall class.
In 2014, Brown and 245 other high school students were part of CollegeFirst, a nationally unique UA service-learning initiative designed to prepare high schoolers – particularly those from underserved schools – for college-level Advanced Placement courses in math, English and science. In 2014, 47 University of Alabama students in Tuscaloosa, Birmingham and Huntsville led the high schoolers through three weeks of demanding academic curriculum.
Advanced Placement courses enable high school students to take college-level courses taught by teachers in their high schools. Students who pass AP exams receive college credit and are three times more likely to earn a college degree than those who do not pass, according to the College Board.
UA students, who enroll in UH 300/NEW 310 CollegeFirst, spend an initial week during Summer Term I learning how to be tutors and studying issues related to educational disparities and creative education-reform efforts.
During the following three weeks of tutoring, college students, like high schoolers, often find their expectations were amiss. “I was expecting to have to motivate all the kids and deal with apathy, but I was pleasantly surprised when I found students who were motivated, curious and willing to learn,” says Patrick Mitchell, a chemistry mentor and junior majoring in operations management.
After playing a game in which students had to answer a question correctly to earn a point and gain access to the next question, a high school student asked Mitchell for a list of the questions. “I asked why she would want these problems, and she blind-sided me by responding, ‘I want to practice them at home.’
“My outlook on the next generation has changed. There’s so much talk in our society that the next generation of students is too apathetic to their studies, that we’ll never catch up with other countries. What usually is not reported in the mass media is information about students who are given the opportunity to soar and exceed expectations by a thousand fold.”
In 2008, Alabama ranked 43rd nationally in AP exams taken and 45th in exams passed, according to the College Board. The UA Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility 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.
Many 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 qualifying scores on Advanced Placement math, science and English exams. During the past six years, Alabama has seen 136 percent growth, compared to 49 percent in the nation as a whole.
Shannon Uhl, a 12th grader at Buckhorn High School in New Market, Ala., took the CollegeFirst biology prep in 2014 and the chemistry prep in 2013. Uhl, who plans to major in criminal psychology and chemistry in college and work for the FBI, says CollegeFirst taught her everything covered in the first month of her AP chemistry class. “And when we got to titrations in the lab – I was awesome at those because of this program,” she says.
All high school students deserve an opportunity to succeed in rigorous, college-level experiences, says Stephen Black, director of the UA Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility. “This initiative recruits successful college students to serve as both tutors and mentors, helping increase the number of high school students who will be ready not only to attend college, but to excel in college.”
Being able to learn from those close to his own age was a benefit, says Nathan Rogers, a 12th grader at Kate Duncan Smith DAR High School in Grant, Ala. “The college mentors know how to make it fun and entertaining,” says Smith, a biology student. “They also know how to put it into terms that we actually understand.”
Abby Martin, a senior majoring in secondary education, says CollegeFirst reaffirmed her decision to become a high school English teacher. “We had one student who was really quiet and withdrawn,” she says. “She confessed to me that she had never written a typical five-paragraph essay. I took a few minutes to walk her through the steps, and then I let her work on her own for a few minutes. When I came back and read what she had written, I was amazed. Her writing was eloquent, to-the-point and very mature.”
“When this student began this program, she was already a great writer. However, she did not have the tools she needed to succeed. This particular experience reminded me of the importance of laying a solid foundation for students to build upon.”
Another education major, Maggie Sisco, says CollegeFirst gave her much-needed practice in teaching new concepts. “Perhaps the most valuable thing it has helped me learn is how to read my students and adjust my lesson plan,” says Sisco, a junior majoring in elementary education. “Any good teacher must be flexible and must be able to determine what is, or isn’t, helping her students. A teacher must be continually assessing the students’ comprehension and focus.”
Students with other career plans say being part of CollegeFirst will help them as well. Mitchell, who hopes to work in corporate logistics and operations, says he learned problems are best approached from multiple directions and what makes sense to one person might not to the next. “The experience I gained in this program will be useful when working to solve problems, research new subjects or explain anything to anyone – in a meeting, over lunch or in an interview,” he says.
Martin says she enjoyed the opportunity to mentor high school students in addition to teaching them academic material. “Many of them asked me questions about what college is like, and it was pretty neat to be able to answer those questions in an honest, down-to-earth way,” she says.
Brown also appreciated this aspect of the program. “It was great to ask the mentors questions about the University, what they had to do to get in and the kind of classes they’re taking. They have really good insight.
To learn more about CollegeFirst, visit cesr.ua.edu or contact CESR at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-348-6490.