UA students prepare high schoolers for rigorous math, science and English courses and success in college

By:    Date: 02-23-2016

Article by Cara Walker

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After completing a CollegeFirst prep program in summer 2014 and then excelling in the college-level English language and composition class at her high school, Kathryn Versace was eager to sign up for the CollegeFirst calculus program in summer 2015.

In addition to preparing her for Advanced Placement coursework, the calculus program provided insights she plans to use in her career as a math teacher, says Versace, a 12th grader at Northridge High School. “It gave me ideas for activities that I could use for my future students,” she says.

Her favorite activity was calculus jeopardy, which she says her college-student mentors turned into a fast-paced, fun learning experience.

In 2015, Versace and 181 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 2015, 42 University of Alabama students in Tuscaloosa, Birmingham and Huntsville led the high schoolers through three weeks of demanding academic curriculum.


A CollegeFirst mentor leads students in a chemistry lab. ABOVE: Students conduct an experiment.

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.

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. They spend the following three weeks tutoring and mentoring the high schoolers.

CollegeFirst mentors come to the classroom prepared to teach, but often gain additional inspiration from their students. “I am not exaggerating when I say that every single one of our students has worked extremely hard, participated and improved,” says Ben Michaels, a sophomore majoring in chemistry who worked with CollegeFirst in Huntsville.

“These young people gave up almost an entire month of their summer to come to a college campus early in the morning to study and learn chemistry. When I was their age, I would not have even imagined giving up a day, let alone a month, of my summer to study difficult science material and solve math problems. Luckily, however, these high schoolers are not ordinary; they are extraordinary.”

Michaels says the program also helped prepare him for his future career. “Through my time at CollegeFirst, I learned a lot more about the instructor-student relationship,” he says. “The program helped me develop a sense of understanding and patience when teaching subjects that are new to students. As I hope to one day become a physician, the instructing and advising skills I developed at CollegeFirst will translate directly to my relationships with patients.”


English students work through a writing exercise.

Megan Zartman, a junior majoring in communication studies and a CollegeFirst biology mentor who worked in Tuscaloosa, says the experience developed her ability to teach using methods catered to various learning styles. “I hope to go into counseling or speech language pathology, so understanding where an individual needs help, providing them with the appropriate resources and making those resources accessible to them is crucial,” she says.

Zartman also says she enjoyed being part of such a high-quality initiative. “I witnessed some of the best biology lectures I have ever sat in, experienced engaging laboratory experiments and worked with incredibly passionate mentors – a recipe for an excellent program that will undoubtedly improve these high school students’ lives.” she says.

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 has led the nation for growth in qualifying scores on Advanced Placement math, science and English exams during the past seven years. After just one year in the A+ College Ready program, 97 Alabama high schools showed an average 95-percent increase in AP qualifying scores – 14 times the national average. A+ College Ready has now expanded into almost half of all Alabama public school systems.


A calculus student listens to instruction.

Although Cas Holley, a senior majoring in civil engineering, was impressed by the high school students’ work ethic, she was shocked to see some of them struggling with basic math skills. “The vast majority of the students are extremely intelligent, yet material that should have already been covered in their scholastic careers seemed to catch them off guard,” she says.

She says she learned how important programs like CollegeFirst are for some high school students.

Na’Daisha Mckinstry, an 11th grader at Hillcrest High School in Tuscaloosa, took the CollegeFirst biology prep session in 2015 after encouragement from a teacher and fellow classmate who thought it would be a great opportunity for her because she struggled with biology during her freshman year. After participating in CollegeFirst, Mckinstry says she’s ready for AP biology. “I feel more prepared for the class because I have the notes from CollegeFirst so I can compare and remember the subject better,” she says.

Student 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.

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.”

In addition to helping high schoolers learn academic material, mentors advise them on applying to college and for scholarships and give them tips on the types of courses to take once they arrive on a university campus. Versace says she also appreciated this aspect of the program.

Mychi Tran enrolled in CollegeFirst after hearing in the morning announcements at her school information about a free course to prepare her for AP chemistry . She says she plans to become a doctor and knows a lot of chemistry will be in her future.

Tran says CollegeFirst provided her with a basic knowledge of chemistry so she could succeed in her class this year. “Now I am ahead in the class because of the program, which makes me feel good,” she said in fall 2015.

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