Three BR schools among La. top 10 STEM schools _lowres

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Baton Rouge Magnet High School is shown in this August 2012 Advocate file photo.

Baton Rouge Magnet High School led the way in Louisiana this past year when it came to Advanced Placement with more students taking the college placement exams and more scoring well enough to potentially earn college credit than any other public high school in the state.

Baton Rouge Magnet easily outpaced perennial frontrunner, Ben Franklin High School, in New Orleans.

A student needs to score at least a 3 to earn credit at colleges and universities in Louisiana and at many nationwide. Scores on AP exams range from 1 to 5 and they are given in 38 subjects.

A total of 483 students at Baton Rouge’s flagship public high school scored a 3 or better during the 2016-17 school year. That’s 24 more than Ben Franklin and 92 more than Baton Rouge had the year before.

Ben Franklin still came out far better than Baton Rouge Magnet High in the percentage of test-takers who earn 3s and above, with 84 percent at the New Orleans high school versus 54 percent at the Baton Rouge school.

Also, about half of all 945 students who attended Ben Franklin last year earned a 3 or above; only a third of Baton Rouge Magnet's 1,473 students managed to do the same.

Other south Louisiana schools that did well in terms of the number of students earning 3 and above on AP exams were Lafayette High School in Lafayette, 256; Lusher Charter School in New Orleans, 227; Dutchtown High in Geismar, 194; Haynes Academy for Advanced Studies in Metairie, 185; Live Oak High School in Watson, 182; and Zachary High School in Zachary, 177.

All of those, except Lafayette High and Lusher, had more high scoring AP students than the year before. Dutchtown High was the fastest growing of the group with 35 more students this past year earning 3s and above compared to the year before.

Nan McCann, who serves as principal of both Baton Rouge Magnet and its sister school, Lee High, said the results for Baton Rouge High are gratifying and were part of a long-term effort.

“We were working towards being the top AP school in the state,” McCann said.

As part of reaching that goal, the school has added AP courses every year and has sent teachers to training programs both locally and across the country. McCann credits that training for much of the school’s success.

“You can’t just branch out alone,” McCann said. “You have to go outside to see what other teachers are doing.”

Lee High, the other high school where McCann is principal, showed significant improvement as well. It had 72 students score at least a 3 on an AP exam. That’s roughly double the number over last year and the second highest total in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.

McCann noted that Lee High’s growth in AP is more impressive when you take into account that the school focuses more on dual enrollment than AP as part of its extensive partnership with LSU.

“We always thought of Baton Rouge High being the AP school and that Lee would be the dual enrollment school,” she said.

Baton Rouge High has also benefited since it joined forces in 2015 with the Dallas-based nonprofit, the National Math and Science Initiative. It is one of several schools that NMSI is working with in the capital region. Primary funding for the NMSI initiative is provided by ExxonMobil, which gave it $13 million in 2016.

NMSI, which began its College Readiness Program in 2007, touts big gains in passage rates on Advanced Placement exams for all students, particularly noting the gains made by female, Hispanic and African-American students. The initiative offers a variety of help for participating schools: a summer training institute, mentors for teachers new to AP, three Saturday help sessions for students at participating schools, and extra money for schools to buy additional AP instructional materials.

For Baton Rouge High, the NMSI grant meant shifting its focus toward getting lower-scoring students to 3s and above, and working to increase the ranks of all test-takers. It ran counter to past practice at the high school, McCann said.

“We have come to understand at Baton Rouge High that it’s more important that kids are taking these classes, even if they score a 1 or 2,” she said. "They will be more prepared for college. That was a hard thing for us.”

The shift has affected the passage rate of the high school. In the 2011-12 school year, less than 200 students took AP exams at Baton Rouge Magnet, but about 80 percent earned 3s and above. During the 2016-17 school year, nearly 900 Baton Rouge Magnet students took AP tests, but only 54 percent earned 3s and above.

NMSI’s program also pays $100 per passing AP exam score that it gives to both students and teachers. That has sparked criticism from opponents of such financial incentives who argue that it impairs students’ intrinsic motivation.

McCann said those incentives have helped, but she’s not sure how much. She said they will go away for Baton Rouge Magnet after the 2017-18 school year, unless another private donor steps in to help. She said, though, that she thinks Baton Rouge Magnet has made AP such a central part of what it does that even without the incentives, the school will do well in the future.

Woodlawn and McKinley high schools also participated in NMSI’s College Readiness program last year, and Woodlawn improved its numbers some, while McKinley’s declined. Lee High is joining the program this school year, which starts Aug. 9, as are Tara and Scotlandville high schools.

Tara and Scotlandville will need all the help they can get. The two Baton Rouge high schools have had hundreds of students take AP exams in the past few years but almost none have scored high enough to potentially earn college credit.

East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Warren Drake said he’s proud of what schools like Baton Rouge Magnet High have done in recent years and wants to see gains in other schools as well.

“We can’t give up on them,” Drake said. “It’s always going to be a challenge at certain schools, but we’re not going to leave them by the wayside.”

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier