By Jesse Roman
PEABODY — A new program at Peabody High School designed to increase participation and achievement in college-level Advanced Placement courses has worked beyond almost everyone's most optimistic expectations.
"Unbelievable. Just off the charts," is how John Smolenski, director of enrollment services at Mass Math and Science Initiative, described the results to a few hundred students gathered in the Peabody High auditorium yesterday morning.
The school has more than tripled the number of students enrolled in Advanced Placement courses and significantly boosted performance in the year since it was awarded a five-year grant worth at least $650,000 from the Boston-based Massachusetts Math and Science Initiative. The school says 378 students are enrolled in AP courses this year, up from 99 students in 2009, the year before the program was introduced. The number of students passing the college-level courses by scoring a 3 or better on a five-point scale has jumped from 66 last year to 134.
"They're talking about us and looking at us because we are the man!" Peabody Principal Ed Sapienza announced to cheers from the students.
"We're really very proud of all the people here," Peabody School Committee member Beverley Ann Griffin Dunne said in an interview. "Both students and staff have put in a lot of effort to have such significant success in such a short period of time."
Peabody is now beginning the second year of its grant, which pays for extra staff, training and supplies; covers portions of the cost to take the tests; and pays incentives to students and teachers for good results. Peabody is one of 46 schools across Massachusetts that participate in the program. Salem started this year.
The program is funded with a $30 million statewide grant from the National Math and Science Initiative. That organization, bankrolled by ExxonMobil, Bill and Melinda Gates, and others, has given six states money with the aim of reversing the widening gap in math and science between U.S. students and the rest of the world.
In its first three years, the program has increased AP enrollments in participating schools from about 4,000 in 2008 to nearly 9,000, according to figures compiled by the organization. Some schools stand out, however, said Morton Orlov, the president of the Massachusetts Math and Science Initiative.
"To be honest, did every school do what Peabody did? No," he said in an interview. "This (program) is not an experiment, we know this works with one huge provision. It works if people want it to work, if the teachers and students work hard to make it happen."
Orlov credited Sapienza specifically.
"He's been an incredible leader on this," Orlov said.
The program works in several ways. Schools expand access to AP courses by allowing open enrollment for students; even freshmen are eligible to take Advanced Placement courses. Teachers are given extensive training and support. Teachers and students meet for study sessions on three Saturdays for each course. Students are fed breakfast and lunch at the sessions and are entered to win prizes such as iPods and gift certificates. The grant also pays $13,000 per year for new school supplies and pays half of the $86 cost for a student to take an Advanced Placement test.
Lastly, the program pays incentives. Students receive $100 for each English, math or science AP exam on which they receive a score of 3 or better. That's $13,400 the program will dish out to Peabody students this year.
"We haven't cut the checks yet, but we're in the process of doing that in the next few weeks," said Smolenski, the enrollment director. "We're going to come down here with an armored truck."
Teachers also get paid for successful student outcomes — that part has caused controversy throughout the state among teachers and unions. AP teachers gets $100 for each of their students who scores a 3 or better on the exams, a $500 stipend, and may also receive up to an additional $3,000 based on several other factors. The Peabody Federation of Teachers fought against the payments, saying it's merit pay and not fair to teachers who teach special needs students or those who teach younger children and prepare them for success later on.
"An AP teacher is not the sole determining factor of how well students do; it's an accumulation of efforts of what they learn starting as far back as kindergarten," said Bruce Nelson, the president of the Peabody Federation of Teachers. "Were I an AP teacher, I'd be insulted that they think a few hundred bucks would make a difference in the effectiveness of my teaching. It's like a slap in the face."
The union had suggested at least six alternatives, such as pooling the money and splitting it among all teachers, or using it to fund student scholarships, but those ideas were rejected, Nelson said.
As a result, the Peabody teachers union will file a grievance to the superintendent when the teachers' payments are made, Nelson said. If that grievance is denied, he will take it to the School Committee, and if it is still denied, an arbitrator will get involved, he said.
Orlov calls the teacher payments "awards" and says they are given because years of data says it works.
While that battle is sorted out, nobody denies that the program seems to be working for the students. Some might be surprised at its resounding success. Not Sapienza.
"If you've hung around me awhile, you'd know I never went into a competition believing I wouldn't be successful," he said in an interview. "I'm confident in the kids. The talent has always been there, and this grant acts as a catalyst to bring it out."