• The Confidence to Fly - The Story of Point Pleasant Beach’s

    Gull Flight School 

    Our AP expansion initiative had its roots in opening opportunities and closing equity gaps. Though AP in some districts is available only to some students, we see it differently in Point Pleasant Beach School District. We believe all students deserve access to our very best and most rigorous curriculum, and we have made it our mission to achieve that aspiration. In 2014, 36 high school students (of our ~400 student population) were enrolled in an AP course, and the school administered a meager 65 AP exams. The number of AP students from some of our subgroup populations could be counted on one hand. As we scrutinized data, we could see that too many of our students were not being exposed to the rigor of our best curriculum, and they were missing an identified opportunity to develop important college and career readiness skills. We took the challenge of growing our students’ exposure to rigorous coursework head-on in 2017, and have since sustained a multi-faceted effort that has grown our AP program, increased our AP student diversity, and produced a dual enrollment program that annually enrolls over half of our student body.

    As we explored AP expansion strategies, we uncovered barriers that prevented students from taking AP. Some students were deterred by “intense” teachers, some by course offerings, some by the perception that AP wasn’t for them - that they could never be “one of those kids.” Some students lacked the confidence to try rigorous coursework. Some were afraid to risk a drop in their grades, while others lacked the parental involvement to nudge them out of their comfort zones. Some students articulated that the cost of multiple AP exams deterred their participation, and others failed to see the value in a course that might not earn them college credit. During our exploration, we also uncovered a series of tracking decisions within our system that put students in course sequences that could never lead them to an AP class. Some future-altering decisions were made with finality in elementary school (decisions about which students could take Algebra I and Geometry foremost among them).


    Where challenges exist, opportunities to design and apply solutions also exist. We immediately began to re-draw course pathways to ensure all sequences could lead to an AP/dual enrollment capstone.  We instituted an open access policy to all of our AP and dual enrollment courses, immediately ensuring equitable access for all students. These were priority, non-negotiable leadership decisions. They were supported with professional development and important conversations with stakeholders. We attacked the math concern by first introducing a Summer Geometry course taught in a blended asynchronous model that allowed students to “catch-up” to peers who matured into advanced math courses earlier or who had more success in their first attempt at a course.  We then addressed barriers that appeared in 5-8th grades, collapsing course tracks, identifying and aligning common skills and content that would be taught to all students across math offerings at each grade level.


    Applying research that identified the numerous positive impacts of exposing students to high rigor, particularly during their transition into high school, we introduced a ninth-grade AP World History course and opened it to every ninth-grade student. These initial changes helped us ignite a dramatic expansion of AP enrollment and in one year build academic confidence among a broader range of our new high school students than ever before.


    We used the College Board’s AP Potential tool to identify students, including subgroup students, who possessed AP potential, and we recruited them into our AP program. We added AP courses where the AP Potential tool suggested our students might see the most success.  By offering PSAT and PSAT 8/9 to all students in grades 8-11, we collected longitudinal, actionable data on student growth. Following our first year of data analysis, we added seven AP courses to our curricula. Introducing those courses forced our organization to raise its instructional capacity and begin viewing all students as potential AP students. As more teachers saw from the inside what was required of a successful AP student, and saw how “new” AP students were carrying their skills with them into non-AP classes, they shared with their colleagues during department meetings and articulation sessions tips on raising academic rigor for all students. Discussions at the elementary level focused on developing identified skills required for AP success (e.g. a finely tuned ability to argue with evidence).


    After gathering data suggesting that AP exam costs were deterring some students from taking certain AP courses and AP exams, we made a pitch to the board of education and our Public Education Foundation to partner in subsidizing 50% of the cost of each AP exam, reducing exam costs for all students.  Going a step further to control costs and add value for all of our students, in 2019 we launched Gull Flight School, a dual-enrollment partnership with Ocean County College that includes our AP courses and other stand-alone courses (44 courses in total).  This early-college program provides students with a pathway to an associate degree before their high school graduation, for a fraction of the cost of two years at a private college. Every AP course we offer includes the opportunity to earn credits through Gull Flight School, resulting in considerable cost savings for students and families and removing the concern that a student who attempts an AP course might not qualify for college credit. The availability of such a broad range of classes means more students (198 of 362 students in 2023) are testing the college waters before exiting high school and transporting college credits and substantial savings into their futures. In 2021, our first student graduated from college weeks before she walked across our football field for her high school graduation.


    Our experience pursuing equity, growing AP success, and providing economic relief has resulted in a school system that believes all students are capable of high achievement - an important mindset to bring into all of our practices. In 2020, we had 206 AP students, leading New Jersey for the third consecutive year with the most AP participation (62%) among high school students (vs. NJ’s average of 36%). Those 206 AP students occupied 409 AP seats and took 367 exams. This dramatic increase from 36 students and 65 exams has served our students and our entire academic system. For several years, over 70% of our entering ninth- grade class has challenged themselves with AP World History.  In 2019, 2021, and 2022, we received the College Board’s AP Computer Science Female Diversity Award. In 2021, 21% of our AP student testers identified from racial/ethnic subgroups. In 2022, 19% identified from racial/ethnic subgroups. In each case, our testers overrepresent our general high school racial/ethnic minority population of roughly 12%. These are good marks for us, but our work is not complete. By raising our expectations for ALL students, holding ourselves accountable for their successes (and failures), and by creating numerous pathways through which every student can access our best courses, we have created a more equitable system that inspires confidence in students and has the confidence in itself to face the many challenges ahead.