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Teacher Jessica Hubbuch, center, works with student Diamond McKinley while teaching a chemistry class at Howard School on Friday, Nov. 2, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Hubbuch is also teaching AP chemistry for the first time this year.
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As the Tennessee Department of Education celebrates the record-number of high school students who took an Advanced Placement course exam this year, Hamilton County Schools is also making efforts to expand AP course offerings for students across the district.

Earlier this fall, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen celebrated the fact that 32,000 Tennessee public school students took an end of course exam for these college-level courses, with more than half scoring well enough to potentially earn college credit.

In 2018, only 991 high school students in Hamilton County took an AP course exam, partly because only 11 of the district's 20 public and charter high schools offered an AP course.

This year, the district aims to change that with an increase in where AP courses are being offered and how many students are enrolled in such courses.

"In recent years, Tennessee has made great strides in creating and expanding early post-secondary opportunities for students, including growing the number of students participating in AP classes across the state," McQueen said in a statement. "The expansion of AP courses is one piece of making sure our students are prepared for the rigor of post-secondary coursework, and ultimately ready to be successful in their future careers. These results show that this emphasis is creating impactful change in our schools and allowing more of our students the opportunity to earn college credit while in high school."

During the 2017-18 school year, 1,162 students in Hamilton County were enrolled in AP courses and 991 of them took at least one exam. Some students were enrolled in more than one course.

This school year, 1,746 students are enrolled in at least one AP course.

Students can take AP courses in a variety of subjects depending on what is offered at their school. Subjects include calculus, computer science, English, environmental science, physics, studio art, U.S. history and more.

At The Howard School, one of the schools that didn't offer AP courses previously, students are enrolled in three different AP courses this year — AP chemistry, AP English and AP U.S. history.

Ashley Cox, an English teacher at The Howard School, is excited to be teaching AP English for the first time this school year.

"It is a college-level course so it also gets them prepared for the work they'll face at the college-level," Cox said. "It provides them the opportunity to be pushed in ways they've never been pushed before, it gives them another level."

She acknowledged that introducing AP courses changes the entire curriculum for students at the school, however. Students have to be prepared for higher level courses as juniors and seniors in the classes they are taking as freshmen and sophomores.

"It changes how teachers teach. We are having a lot of conversations about how those courses need to change so that kids can be prepared for AP," she said.

Another Howard teacher, Jessica Hubbuch, a science teacher now teaching AP Chemistry, echoes the need to prepare students early for AP courses.

"We re having to reevaluate the [course structure] with the introduction of AP chemistry," Hubbuch said. "It's challenging. You need to have the comprehensive knowledge and it took me time to develop that knowledge from a leader's perspective. It's always been on my agenda, it's something I wanted to have here at Howard."

An emphasis on college-level courses such as AP or International Baccalaureate and dual-enrollment courses are a result of the state's plan for the most recent federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

As part of the state plan, the department created an accountability metric known as the 'Ready Graduate' indicator.

High school students in Tennessee are considered "ready" for the next step after graduation by meeting one of four checks for readiness that include access to "early post-secondary opportunities."

AP classes, dual-enrollment, career and technical education courses and opportunities like the district's Future Ready Institutes are some of the eight early post-secondary opportunities available to students in Tennessee.

Data shows students who take at least four early post-secondary opportunities are more likely to be prepared for college, state officials say.

As far as why only 11 schools offered AP courses last year in Hamilton County, and at neither of the Opportunity Zone high schools — which serve many of the district's low-income, minority students — Cox said until now a ball had been dropped.

"When you are at a struggling school, there is a focus on how do you get the lowest students to improve, what do you do with the lowest and mid-level kids, and there's not a focus on what you do for the highest-achieving students. I think there was a ball dropped there," she said. "No one ever really looks at every student and makes sure that you have programs like AP programs for the highest-achieving students, but I think that philosophy is changing."

Both Hubbuch and Cox said they've seen tremendous interest in the courses from their students.

Tariah Bell, a junior in Hubbuch's standard chemistry class, is currently taking AP U.S. history. She plans to take both AP English and AP chemistry as a senior.

"It's kind of challenging, but I like the challenge," Bell said. "It's going to help prepare me for college and prepare me for college-level work."

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

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