NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (USATODAY) -- Meg Wiggins' fifth-period Advanced Placement Biology class was standing-room-only one recent morning as 27 students crowded around lab tables to study sample sizes. If that seems like a large group, consider that Wiggins' second-period class has 30 students.
She knows the work pushes the limits of a few students' abilities -- about one in three are sophomores, who rarely take the course this early in their high school career. And enrolling so many kids in advanced science will likely bring down Woodside High School's average score on the big end-of-year exam, with more 1s and 2s on the five-point scale -- a 3 or higher is considered a passing grade and eligible for college credit. But she and her colleagues have decided it's worth the cost.
"People need to strive to do things that are meaningful and good and hard," she said. "The more kids you can convince to do tougher things, the better off your society will be."
Woodside, a large arts magnet school in this industry-rich peninsula an hour's drive southeast of Richmond, is among a group of schools nationwide that is pushing to expand access to advanced math and science courses to match those of more affluent suburban schools.
Where the jobs are
The push comes as industry experts predict that large numbers of new jobs will rely on math and science skills. So-called STEM jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics are expected to grow more quickly than others: The U.S. Commerce Department last year projected that STEM jobs will grow by 17% from 2008 to 2018, compared with just under 10% for others.
In Washington last week to unveil a plan to remake the USA's K-12 STEM system, Brad Smith, Microsoft Inc.'s executive vice president, said the tech giant has an estimated 6,000 unfilled jobs, more than half of them in engineering or research and development.
But recent data from the U.S. Department of Education's Civil Rights Division show that access to advanced math and science is uneven across the U.S. -- even within individual school districts. At least half a million students attend public schools that don't offer Algebra II, the non-profit education group Achieve recently estimated.
At the same time, recent studies show that U.S. students' math and science skills are growing slowly: In 2011, just 35% of eighth-graders were proficient in math and 32% in science, according to the U.S. Education Department's National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the increases "reason for concern as much as optimism," saying student achievement "is not accelerating fast enough for our nation's children to compete in the knowledge economy of the 21st century. "
Surveying the national landscape last year, Achieve, made up of business and government officials, found that only 20 states and the District of Columbia required students to complete a "college- and career-ready" curriculum to earn a diploma.
'The next league'
Woodside offers an unusual example of a school that treats AP as a sports team. It opens AP courses to all students regardless of grade-point average, recruits heavily and trains after school. A lot of students don't know what AP is, or they think that "only the absolute cream-of-the-crop, smartest kids going to Harvard can be successful in AP, and that is absolutely not true," Wiggins said.
Principal Sean Callender said he pushes AP classes "every time I talk to parents." He invokes a sports analogy to explain his line of reasoning with prospective students: "If you're getting good grades already," he said, "why don't you step up to the next league?" Teachers also push struggling students to attend after-school tutoring sessions each Tuesday and Thursday help "to get them used to the rigor," he said.
Woodside also picks up the cost of the annual exam and makes it hard for kids to drop AP courses once they're enrolled. Both teachers' and parents' signatures are required for withdrawal, allowed only after a student attends three tutoring sessions. Even then, parents must meet with a counselor to approve the withdrawal. It rarely gets that far, counselor Kathy DiMarino said. After the tutoring, many kids "figure out that they can do this."
The result is a 75% rise since 2006 in the number of students taking advanced math and science. Woodside, which enrolls just one in four city high school students, last year accounted for more than one in three students taking AP math or science. The school's AP scores might not be the highest in Virginia, DiMarino said, "but we're proud of our students' success."
All the same, Callender said, the school's job becomes especially tough after a student works hard all year but earns just a 1 or 2 on the AP exam. "You kind of have to help them reflect on their year," he said, reminding them, for instance, that at the start of the course they couldn't even do the required work. Taking an AP class has benefits even if they failed the test. "You're better off trying to convince them that they're better off," he said.
In a break between sessions, Gisselle Cherbony, one of Wiggins' 10th-graders, said the biology class marked a turning point in her schooling. "It's like the first time school is somewhat challenging," she said. Cherbony, who is also taking AP World History, has done well so far but was waiting for the results of a biology quiz.
A few rows over, Collin Gilland, a 12th-grade classmate who has loaded up his schedule with six AP courses this fall, said the classes are more conceptual, less about memorizing facts and more about understanding a topic. "You actually learn how to think," he said.