The share of Payson High School students taking college-level classes remains far below the state and national average.

Nationally, roughly 40 percent of high school students take the college level classes. In Payson, the percentage is more like 14 percent, according to figures supplied by the district.

The comparison in Payson is complicated by the way in which free, dual-enrollment college classes have almost completely replaced the advanced placement (AP) class approach used elsewhere.

The College Board reported in February that about 40 percent of the class of 2018 had taken at least one AP course. These courses have a college-level curriculum and most students can get college credit if they score at least 3 out of 5 on a tough test at the end of the semester. Only about 24 percent of the students taking the course scored a 3 or higher on the test, which largely ensures they’ll get college credit.

Payson High School has developed a different system, thanks to an unusual program funded by the Aspire Arizona Foundation (AAF). This system offers dual-enrollment Gila Community College classes, taught on the high school campus — usually by high school teachers with the master’s degree necessary to teach the same course at the community college.

Students who pass those courses are virtually guaranteed they’ll receive college credit for the classes if they attend one of the three state universities. AAF covers the cost of tuition, so the courses are free for the students. By contrast, parents generally pay a roughly $100 fee for their students to take the test.

The dual-enrollment classes represent a better deal for parents and students, but in terms of cost and the likelihood of getting college credit.

However, last year only about 104 high school students took advantage of the dual-enrollment program. This year AAF decided to pay for up to three classes per student, compared to one per semester previously.

Nonetheless, in 2018, only about 14 percent of the roughly 750 students at the high school took a dual-enrollment class. That’s a far lower participation rate than the 40 percent of high school students statewide taking AP classes in the course of their high school career.

Prior to the embrace of the dual-enrollment approach, an estimated 32 percent of Payson High School students took AP classes and 14 percent of those actually got a 3 or better on the test, according to national school rankings published by U.S. News and World Report.

Payson Unified School District Superintendent Greg Wyman said the district has stressed dual-enrollment classes and dropped most of its former, on-campus AP offerings.

This year, the high school offers a single on-campus AP class — history. Only 16 students are enrolled, said Wyman.

Students can take an array of online AP classes through Payson Center for Success, including biology, calculus, chemistry, economics, English language, English literature, government, physics and statistics. Many other high schools in the state offer some or all of those classes on campus. The percentage of AP classes and passage rates plays a role in many national school rating systems.

On the other hand, the high school offers an array of dual-enrollment classes, through its partnership with GCC and the Aspire Arizona Foundation. That includes two levels of biology, two levels of chemistry, two levels of English, three levels of math, American Sign Language, physics, speech and debate, and criminology.

“For the number of high school students we have in the district,” said Wyman, “it is difficult to support both programs. Previously the district utilized the AP program; however, as a result of the Aspire Arizona program the decision was made to change directions in order to help families with the cost of college education. The scholarships provided by AAF provide an opportunity for students to have college courses for free. In addition, dual-enrollment classes are aligned to a statewide community college curriculum, which is accepted by the in-state universities, as well as many out of state universities.”

The core problem with offering the advanced classes remains the relatively small pool of students who want to take those courses, said Wyman.

“The primary barrier is having enough students to take these courses. There are about 100 students that have consistently taken the dual-enrollment classes, adding AP classes would potentially have a negative impact on dual enrollment. In both cases you need to have enough students in a class to have the class “make.” In other words too few students would result in canceling the class. The district needs to focus on one program and we have chosen dual enrollment.”

The district struggles when it comes to finding enough students who want to take advanced or “extra” classes in other fields as well — including vocational classes.

For instance, the district offers 11 different vocational classes through the Northern Arizona Vocational Institute of Technology, a state-created vocational district that serves districts throughout northern Arizona. The special district offers classes and essentially pays Payson teachers to provide instruction. Payson offers classes in theater arts, auto repair, computers, fire science, agriculture, culinary arts, nursing and cosmetology — often in partnership with both NAVIT and GCC.

However, Payson doesn’t offer the most popular NAVIT program in the state — engineering.

At a recent board meeting, Wyman noted that this is mostly because the district can’t find enough students interested in engineering to fill the multi-year program.

Conversely, last year’s engineering teacher and current physics teacher, Drew Fiala, said he has had multiple students ask about the future of the engineering program at PHS.

Finally, the state has mandated longer class periods. The requirement was supposed to boost academics, but actually seriously reduced school district flexibility when it came to fitting specialized classes into a student’s schedule, including dual-enrollment, lab classes and vocational classes.

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