East St. Louis High School: Brains just as important as brawn

News-DemocratFebruary 15, 2014 

East St. Louis Senior High School is known for having students with exceptional athletic abilities. However, students and school officials alike hope the school becomes known for its academically gifted students as well.

"East St. Louis was always an athletic school," Kay Rhodes said. "We want to try to get it as well known for its academics." Rhodes is a mathematics content leader for East St. Louis District 189.

A group of more than a dozen students are serving as advanced placement "ambassadors" this semester to spread information about the district's advanced placement courses.

Advanced placement, or AP, classes are college-level curriculum offered at high schools. Upon completion of AP courses, students can opt to take an exam, and if they score high enough, they can earn college credit for the course.

Five AP ambassadors, all East St. Louis High seniors, visited classrooms recently to talk about the advantages of taking AP classes with underclassmen.

Senior Kyron Watson, a football player, said AP classes will prepare you for college.

"It just gets you ready to study and be ready to be a college student," he said. "It's not really about grades. It's about preparing for college."

"It helps you prepare for college and manage your time," senior Tonisha Cox said. "It also helps you with your GPA (grade point average), and it helps you look better as an athlete." Cox is on the school's varsity girls basketball team.

Math teacher Jill Wolfmeier also encouraged her Algebra 2 students -- all sophomores -- to take AP classes. "It's getting you ready and conditioned for those college courses," she said. "You feel like a pro when you're already in college."

"You just boost your chances of being successful in college by taking these classes," Rhodes added.

Antoinette Johnson, an English language arts content area specialist for District 189, and Rhodes talked to the underclassmen about the financial benefits of AP classes as well.

"You can get some classes waived at the college or university level," Johnson said.

Last year, Rhodes said two students took the AP English exam and didn't have a high enough score to earn college credit. However, both students had the freshman English requirement waived by their respective colleges.

"It will save you some money," Kyron emphasized to the underclassmen.

Senior Danielle Bellmon said East St. Louis High students are fortunate the district covers the $89 exam fee for students interested in taking the AP exam at the end of the year.

AP AMBASSADORS

A report released Tuesday shows Illinois at the national average for high school graduates scoring high enough for college credit on exams, but low-income and black students still lag in performance and participation in the college prep courses. East St. Louis School District officials want to change that statistic in part with its AP ambassadors.

The new program launched this year, Rhodes said, aims to increase enrollment in AP courses.

Faculty members nominated students to serve as ambassadors and some students volunteered for the program. In all, Rhodes said 15 students in 10th through 12th grade were selected to be AP ambassadors.

Kyron said he wanted to serve as an AP ambassador to be a role model to younger students. "I hope I got through to a lot of kids," he said.

Danielle said she hopes to encourage underclassmen to focus on academics in high school in preparation for college.

"I want to help other people gain the knowledge I have," Tonisha said. "I want to be an asset to others."

Senior Myesha Thomas said she wants to show other students what a "good opportunity" AP courses are.

The AP ambassadors' recent visit to classrooms was timed to occur right before course registration, when current high school students select what classes they want to take next school year.

The AP ambassadors talked to students at the district's Ninth Grade Center last month and plan to visit the district's middle schools next month.

"We are trying to build that vertical ladder with students getting involved earlier and earlier," Rhodes said.

The AP ambassadors will also lead a panel discussion with the newly enrolled students and their parents in late March or early April.

"We want to make sure parents understand the commitment the students are making," Rhodes said.

EXPANDED OFFERINGS

District 189 has expanded its AP course offerings over the last several years, Rhodes said. Two years ago, the district only offered one AP course. Last year, the district added another class.

This year, the district now has six AP classes -- AP Calculus, AP English Language and Composition, AP World History, AP U.S. History, AP English Language and Literature and AP Statistics.

"We are really excited because we are really building this program," Johnson told underclassmen. "We want to make sure you guys have the opportunity students at other schools have."

Belleville School District 201 Superintendent Jeff Dosier said students at Belleville East and West high schools have 10 different AP classes available to them including AP Biology, AP Chemistry, AP Physics, AP Spanish and AP Graphic Design.

Currently, 314 East St. Louis High students are enrolled in the six AP classes at the school. The most popular class is AP Statistics with 73 students enrolled in that course.

Myesha praised AP Statistics. "It's a good class if you want to go into business," she said.

Danielle told underclassmen English AP classes aren't much different than regular English courses except you do a lot of work independently.

The last two school years, Rhodes said, District 189 has received a $50,000 grant to enhance the district's AP program from the Illinois State Board of Education College and Career Readiness Division. The grant money is used to cover additional training for teachers and school counselors.

Contact reporter Jamie Forsythe at 239-2562 or jforsythe1@bnd.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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