In middle school, Elijah Medley had been able to fool around because the classes felt too easy. When he arrived at Hillhouse High School, he expected he could continue breezing through. Then the school’s new pre-AP program, pushed him harder than he’d ever experienced before.
Now in the second year of a push to get more students into high-level courses, Hillhouse is prepping freshmen like Elijah to eventually take an exam that could award them college credit.
It’s part of a broader effort to rebrand Hillhouse itself as an academic powerhouse, not just an athletic one.
In Advanced Placement courses, students learn college-level material. If they score high enough on a year-end test, universities sometimes count the classes toward graduation credits, potentially allowing them to finish early and save on a big tuition bill.
The school’s assistant principal, John Tarka, has set a goal for every student at Hillhouse to eventually take at least one AP class.
To get there, the administration has sent teachers to trainings on AP classes, expanded offerings to include 10 AP classes like computer science and Spanish literature, and created a pre-AP program for freshmen and sophomores.
In 2017, 72 students took AP exams, out of about 900 students total. About one-fifth of the test-takers passed.
Two years later, the AP program has grown to 112 students, marking a 55 percent increase. (Data isn’t yet available on how many passed their tests.)
More are coming down the pipeline, with 108 underclassmen enrolled in the pre-AP program’s eight classes, like geometry and modern-world history.
Since 2014, the state’s education commissioner has been pushing for high schools to sign up more students for high-level courses, especially if they come from low-income backgrounds. Schools are now judged by how many students take AP classes.
As the Connecticut Mirror’s Jacqueline Rabe Thomas reported last year, many principals pushed back, saying that they didn’t have any more desks or that students couldn’t succeed.
Hillhouse has been one of the few high schools to prioritize that mission, helping New Haven’s AP enrollment grow faster than any other district’s in the state.
There’s no prerequisite to enroll in the pre-AP program. It’s open to any student who’s up for the challenge, said Dominique Argo, the independent study coordinator.
Even if students don’t earn a qualifying score on the year-end exam, they’ll still develop time management and study skills and prepare for the discourse that’s expected in college classes, Argo explained.
Students aren’t left entirely on their own: They’re able to stay for after-school tutoring with teachers and take mock tests.
“We try to break down barriers, not block access,” Argo said. “That’s our biggest thing at Hillhouse: We’re working on closing the opportunity gap.”
In the last two years, Argo said, she has already seen a shift in the school’s culture, as more students have enrolled in rigorous courses. Students enrolled in the pre-AP classes have spread the word about how challenging the work can be.
“They probably hear us complaining about how much work we get or how hard it is,” said Angel Coe Miller, a sophomore. “In the back of your head, you know you’re going to do good in the future, but in the present, you just want to sleep.”
Some might be turned off, assuming it’s too much for them to keep up with. But most hear that, as they’re pushing themselves, the pre-AP students feel like they’re getting ahead.
“I feel tired and stressed out, but I feel like I’m going to accomplish something in life,” said Mia Izquierdo Muniz, another sophomore. “I feel very intelligent. I’m so getting a scholarship for college.”
That has convinced some students to transfer in during their sophomore year.
Kimberly Mayorga Moreno said she wasn’t feeling challenged in her ninth-grade classes. She’d finish her work “really fast” and turn to chat with her friends. She brought home a report card with straight A’s. But Kimberly also started to lose motivation, asking herself if it was even worth doing such easy assignments.
“I was bored. I was re-learning things [from middle school], and I didn’t like it. I was literally doing the same essays I was doing in eighth grade,” she said. “I didn’t want to be in classes that didn’t challenge me. What’s the point? You’re here to learn, not to re-learn things.”
Two teachers told Kimberly that she should look into the pre-AP program. After looking over her transcript at the start of this school year, a counselor told her that she’d need to change her whole schedule to transfer into pre-AP program late. She decided to take the risk.
Now, Kimberly said, the classes are much tougher. Chemistry has been like a “hit in the face,” she said. Teachers don’t spend nearly as much time explaining, forcing her to put the time in to make sure she understands.
“It was an adjustment getting used to this new environment, but I got over it,” she said. “I did it anyway to push myself.”
The experience has changed her whole perception of the high school, Kimberly added. When she first found out that she didn’t win a spot in the magnet lottery and would be going to Hillhouse, she started to cry, she remembered. Now, she said, she “loves” the school.
The freshmen are also spreading the word back at their middle schools. They’re telling their former classmates to look past the misconception that Hillhouse is a school where you might witness a fight or catch lice. “We’re the only school with a pre-AP program,” they said, proudly.