Ap chemistry class in WV

Students in AP Chemistry work in the analysis lab, Westside High School
Clear Fork, West Virginia
Photo: Robert Lyons

As a graduate of a small high school in Clear Fork, West Virginia — and now Robertson Scholar at Duke University — I don’t find many students who share my educational background.

When I was filling out applications to colleges across the country, both big state universities and private institutions, one section of the application stood out to me: “List the Advanced Placement (AP) courses you have taken in high school and those you will be taking this year.”

Achieving success, in my mind, was getting into Duke or another great university. I knew that to achieve that goal I had to take AP classes, but I was facing that same problem many students in rural America face – my small West Virginia school had no APs.

I decided to take the road less traveled and enter into the world of virtual learning. The summer prior to my sophomore year of high school, I took AP United States History through Apex Learning – a learning center begun by Microsoft Co-founder Paul Allen that provides AP classes to students via online instruction.

I completed my first AP exam (toward college credit) my sophomore year of high school and decided to continue on the path of AP virtual learning. My junior year of high school became challenging as I decided to take three Advanced Places classes ““ in Literature, Language, and U.S. Government and Politics – through Apex. The teachers permitted me to do the Advanced Placement work in place of classes at my high school. And while this arrangement somewhat relieved the amount of work I had to do at home, I still was studying in the school library for three hours out of the day.

Senior year, I decided to take one more online course — AP Microeconomics ““ through Florida Virtual High School; however, by this time there was another option for me and for others, too: a change in the high school curriculum.

The majority of students in my high school had been unaware of the advantages of taking AP classes. When I began to take the courses, students, parents and faculty took an interest and began asking questions. Many students soon wanted to take AP courses as well. Anyone could have taken AP classes online as I had, but we all wanted in-class Advanced Placement instruction, like what is available to most other students across the country.

AP map
Share of public high school students taking Advanced Placement Exam in 2004 (States with highest percentages of AP students in dark purple, with lowest percentage in white).
Map: National Science Foundation

Robert Lyons was my chemistry and physics teacher in high school. He supported my decision to take AP courses and equally supported the students who wanted the same opportunity. After the students had made their wishes for AP courses clear, he and other teachers attended the College Board’s AP training.

By the time I entered my senior year, Westside High School offered AP Literature, Physics, and Chemistry.

My father opened the world of Advanced Placement to me, and I was able to open it to my peers. Thankfully, I was able to take rigorous classes online. Without these classes I would not have been prepared for the coursework at Duke, and I would not have likely been named a Robertson Scholar. But many other rural students don’t have these chances.

While online learning may seem like a simple solution to the lack of AP in rural schools, it is not so easy. First, not all students can learn virtually. Virtual learning requires discipline. If students haven’t been challenged prior to jumping into AP, unless there’s an instructor to assist them along the way, the personal responsibility is overwhelming, considering you have to pace yourself and study on your own.

Secondly, one of the greatest obstacles is the lack of broadband Internet connections in many rural areas. Virtual learning includes tutorials, graphics, and documents that take a long time to load without computer broadband. Luckily, my high school had high speed access, but I was not this fortunate at home. I had to battle with a crawling Internet connection to do large amounts of homework (by senior year, I had “high speed” at home).

Taking AP courses online was far from easy and at times not so enjoyable. The classes were rigorous, but I would not take back my decision. The coursework made me a better student and prepared me for college, just as AP classes are intended to do. Virtual learning is a great option for students who are not offered college prep courses, however that should not be the only option for students in rural America.

When I arrived at Duke, students talked about their high schools. Not that it bothered me, but no one seemed to have the same background as myself. Most students came from private schools and public schools that had supplied them with the best curricula there was to offer. Rural students should have nothing less than the same opportunities.

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