Hillhouse Boosts AP, Preps Students Early

Christopher Peak PhotoIn 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.

They’ve also brought top scholars to the mayor’s office and the school auditorium to celebrate their high scores, just like rallies for football and basketball stars.

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.

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posted by: WildwildWestEducator on January 28, 2019  8:01pm

Congratulations. It is so refreshing to see positive articles about Hillhouse. We are Academics. Great job kids. They should have kept the Macy’s program, which is the same thing, but for 4 years

posted by: tmctague on January 28, 2019  10:00pm

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.

That’s their pitch at the middle schools?! 

Clumsy 9th graders across NHPS are fretting over social media, fitting in, classes with grades that matter, etc.  It’s a really tough year!  And that’s just from 7:30-2:30.. If it works, they’ll share, so good luck Hillhouse ✊🏽

[Chris: Several students said that middle-school counselors actively tried to dissuade them from going to Hillhouse.]

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on January 29, 2019  7:14am

I was struck by the fact that the bulk of the students in the photographs are young women. I trust they will go on to do great things. But presumably the gender split of students who are particularly bright is about even. Hopefully, Hillhouse is also encouraging bright young men to participate in the program.

posted by: Thomas Alfred Paine on January 29, 2019  1:47pm

Hillhouse High School can be an alternative choice to those who are dissatisfied with what the troubled Amistad High school has to offer.
Hillhouse has a variety of programs, including this one.
We should never underestimate what our public schools have to offer. Despite the fact that charter school leaders frequently demean and malign our public schools as problem places where no adequate education takes place, schools like Hillhouse and Cross and other NHPS high schools regularly send graduates to some of the best colleges and universities and community colleges in this region and nationally.
People need to stop falling for the charter school hype that ‘charter is better.’
Each year refugees from charter schools seek asylum in New Haven public schools where the curriculums and course offerings, students and teaching staffs are much more diverse than most Achievement First charter schools.
It is very easy for charter schools to boast about great academic achievement when they do not have to accept ALL students. Their statistics are fraudulent because they strive to attract and retain the best and brightest students, and send the academically, emotionally and disciplinarily challenged kids back to the public schools because they won’t be bothered.
So kudos to the staff and students of Hillhouse for demonstrating to the public once again that it is possible for students to get a quality education in New Haven without turning to the charter school detention center with books that is Amistad Achievement First High School.

posted by: 1644 on January 30, 2019  10:10am

TAP: From the Achievement First website: We welcome ALL students including students with disabilities and kids who haven’t yet learned English. https://www.achievementfirst.org/enroll/

Particularly at the high school level, Amistad does wash out students who are not suited to its “rigor”, both in terms of academics and behavior, but there is no selective admissions process.

Charter schools are public schools, although they are not operated by the BoE.  They are just one choice in a vary large menu that New Haven offers its residents and residents of surrounding towns in its “schools of choice program.  It’s clear that, for some students, the large, comprehensive high school is the best choice.  A prior commentator (Molly?) wrote of her son being the only white student at Hillhouse and doing very well there, being class president, among other things.  He, of course, had advantages many New Haven students don’t:  educated and relatively affluent parents and a stable home life.  On the other hand, when Creed was being closed, a commentator wrote of how her daughter was lost at Hillhouse, and needed a smaller school.

posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on February 1, 2019  4:41pm

“The school’s assistant principal, John Tarka, has set a goal for every student at Hillhouse to eventually take at least one AP class. ...”

Frankly, that’s a highly dubious goal, and all you have to do is connect the dots with “Schools are now judged by how many students take AP classes” to make an educated guess that the actual educational needs of the kids may not be the administration’s top priority here.  Not every teenager attending a large general-studies high school can or should be pushed into a highly academic program. 

And if they are, it really ought to get better results than this:  “In 2017, 72 students took AP exams, out of about 900 students total. About one-fifth of the test-takers passed.”

I hope the students learned more than those results make it appear.  But what will probably happen is that the school will work harder on TEACHING TO THE TEST, right?

I think some more thinking about both the goals and the methods may be in order.

By the way, schools in the Northeast have a built-in disadvantage with respect to AP exams, because they are given on the same date nationwide, but schools in much of the South, especially, start classes in early August or even earlier, and so have more class time before the exam.  More ways that tests, tests, tests distort learning.