The Payson school district’s decision not to offer key advanced classes for college-bound students could keep many from getting into top colleges.
This year the district cut several advanced placement classes and its calculus class, even though it used earmarked voter-approved budget-override money to maintain advanced classes. Money designated totaled $60,000 last year and $80,000 this year, although the number of advanced classes declined this year.
Voters approved an override in 2010 to let the district spend more than the state formula would otherwise allow. Currently the override adds about $1.2 million to the maintenance and operations budget.
In some cases, the lack of key classes like calculus could cost the district’s top students the chance to attend a top-ranked college. The district will seek fresh override approval in November of 2015. District officials at press time had not provided a breakdown of how it spent the override money earmarked for advanced classes this year.
Laurel Wala, wife of school board member Devin Wala, had sobering words for the Payson Unified School District (PUSD) school board at its meeting on Oct. 15: “This year we do not have (calculus) and for every year we do not have it, we limit students who want to study engineering or the sciences,” she said.
The Walas learned what a lack of calculus would do to a student on a college tour for their son over the October break. What they discovered shocked them.
“Harvey Mudd (college) told us, ‘We would admit your son, but he must complete calculus somewhere else before we would enroll him at Harvey Mudd,’” said Laurel.
The Walas’ son will graduate next year and wants to attend college and study engineering.
Science-oriented colleges like Harvey Mudd and Caltech told the Walas that students who hadn’t completed calculus in high school struggled to catch up once admitted. These universities simply found it easier to choose students who had already taken calculus.
PUSD used to offer calculus every year, but for the first time in years, the Payson High School decided not to offer either Calculus A - C, “because there were not enough students,” said school administrators.
Many students took statistics this year instead of calculus. This is the first year the district offered the class, which resulted in a mass exodus of students from the calculus class.
Wala said seniors graduating this year wishing to pursue sciences, math or engineering will be at a serious disadvantage when applying to colleges.
Students also face problems due to the high school’s sharply limited foreign language classes.
The high school offers no more than two years of foreign language instruction, which will also hamper many students applying to college. “At all of the California universities, if you have two students with an equal background, but one has three years (of foreign language) and the other two, they would pick the student with more years of a foreign language,” Wala told the board.
According to a study by the World Bank, many countries use bilingual education throughout a student’s time in school.
Other studies have found learning a foreign language helps a student think outside the box. The Dana Foundation reports that research shows that learning more than one language helps with attention and conflict management.
The foreign exchange students who come to Payson have said they took English through most of their time in school.
The Associated Press reported that 66 percent of the world’s children are raised bilingual.
Colleges look for students who have a diverse background, such as studying a second language.
The high school has also cut Advanced Placement (AP) classes. This year, Beverly Adams, the chair of the science department, said PHS is not offering AP chemistry, again due to lack of student interest.
Last year, PHS offered multiple AP classes in language, literature, calculus, chemistry and physics.
This year, the high school has cut chemistry and calculus, although spending more override money on advanced courses.
Adams said next year PHS does not plan on offering AP physics — again because the district believes there will not be enough interest.
Administrators say they need at least eight students for academic classes. The limit does not apply to special education and vocational classes, which have a source of additional state funding. The district won’t schedule academic classes with fewer than eight students.
The AP courses offer students a taste of the rigor of college-level courses — and possible college credit, a huge savings for parents who have to foot tuition bills. For college admissions and scholarship reviews, AP courses indicate a student can handle college level courses and has the initiative and drive to challenge themselves.
At the end of a year-long AP class, students take a national test. The highest score is a five. New this year, PHS students taking an AP exam must obtain a three to receive a weighted grade and college credit.
Former PHS student Nicole Scott and current pre-med major, said AP classes helped her immensely.
“To be honest, I can’t imagine being truly prepared for a university curriculum without them. AP classes give you a taste of the work ethic and higher level thinking required to succeed in a college course. I hope the AP program at PHS continues to stay alive and prepare our students for a brighter future. It is a shame to hear when students are missing out on great opportunities.”
A lack of advanced courses also affects applicants to scholarships, such as the full-ride Flinn Scholarship. The scholarship covers tuition, room and board and overseas study, plus a strong fellowship among former Flinn Scholars, reports the Web site.
Matt Ellsworth, assistant vice president of the Flinn Scholars Program, said students with a range of advanced classes have an advantage in competing for scholarships. “Once you begin to peel away those opportunities from schools it gets harder and harder for those students to stand out,” he said.
Ellsworth said he and the Foundation are excited when students from rural schools apply, but he said the number of applicants from a rural school pales compared to the more advantaged urban schools.
“We received 624 applications this past Friday afternoon,” he said, “It’s pretty rare to have students from rural schools apply.”
This year he said he saw one application from Page and one from Benson. He was surprised to see five from Payson. However, in comparison he said the Foundation received 26 from a single school in Chandler.
Both Laurel and Ellsworth said an academic counseling office with early intervention and information makes all the difference in the world in preparing a student to apply for scholarships and admissions.
When Laurel and her family attended the college fair, university representatives said college preparation should start early. Students need to take classes that prepare them for their course of study as well as know which standardized tests are necessary to apply to many colleges.
Laurel said she was dismayed to see only three Payson students attended the college fair, while other Arizona school systems bused in students.
“At the college fair, there were freshmen, sophomores and juniors, and even groups of middle school students, but Payson had only three students there.”
Laurel said the college fair introduced her son to hundreds of colleges from around the country, had seminars on how to apply and where to find financial aid.
“The failure to encourage students to seek college admission is a systemic issue at Payson High School,” said Laurel. “Our school district is doing a huge disservice to our students by not providing them with the opportunity to properly prepare for going to college — and then actually encouraging them to go. We may not have a large percentage of high school graduates going on to college, but a little bit of encouragement and preparation could well change that.”
Last year, of the more than 170 PHS students to graduate, 57 students declared they intended to go onto college.
Ellsworth agrees with Wala. “The biggest challenge for small schools is a good guidance counselor,” he said. “They help to maximize opportunities.”
Ellsworth said universities struggle with outreach to simply get students from rural schools to apply. Ellsworth said universities like Harvard and Stanford seek out students from poor rural schools from low-income families to diversify their student body.
“Universities do care about the diversity of their incoming class ... a student from Payson High probably has a better chance to get into Harvard,” he said.