Every student needs and deserves to be pushed

Ron Skillern, center, with a group of students from his comparative government class on an annual trip to Washington D.C.
Ron Skillern, center, with a group of students from his comparative government class on an annual trip to Washington D.C. Photo provided

The ends of teaching semesters are messy, exhausting, glorious survival races that, for many teachers, include essay grading marathons, letters of recommendation deadlines, final pep talks and conferences with students who’ve struggled, and offerings of gratitude to all those who have been so good to us throughout the semester.

For us and our colleagues at Bowling Green High School the news from Kentucky Commissioner of Education Stephen Pruitt that all students who qualify for free and reduced price lunch will not have to pay Advanced Placement (AP) exam fees was truly glad tidings. Pruitt said what we live at BGHS: “All students should have equal access to the benefits of AP coursework.”

At BGHS we are humbled and proud to work with one of the most ethnically, socially, and economically diverse populations in Kentucky: 52 percent of our students qualify for free/reduced lunch; students collectively speak 27 languages; and 42 percent are minorities. Bowling Green’s refugee center has contributed approximately 13 percent of our student population.

BGHS is also one of the highest achieving secondary schools in Kentucky. This is accomplished by using an open-enrollment policy that allows students to choose the courses they want to take, including honors and Advanced Placement classes.

School counselors and teachers also analyze student grades, scores on ACT scrimmage tests given each September, end-of-classes-course assessments, and PSAT/SAT scores. With this information, they determine whether students are indeed taking classes that will challenge them and, if they aren’t, encourage them to sign up for classes that will.

As a result, pre-AP and AP classes tout significant percentages of minority, special education and socio-economically disadvantaged students. And they are doing well in those classes. At BGHS 26 percent of the student population takes AP courses and achieves a 66.73 percent pass rate compared to a state average of 47.5 percent.

One of our juniors, To’Nia, is a student of color who lives with her mom and younger brother. She almost wasn’t in AP Language and Composition but Natasha Fatkin, her English II teacher, recognized her potential and after talking with To’Nia’s mom, moved her into the pre-AP English II class.

“Every student needs to be pushed,” To’Nia said. “I didn’t want to take AP classes — I didn’t want to be one of those students that was always studying — but once I was in the classes, I realized that it wasn’t so much cramming to learn from textbooks as it was about being super-attentive and ready to learn in class at all times.”

She also said the AP classes have been like a “test run” for college work, plus the credits will be accepted at many higher education institutions, giving her a money-saving head start. “College is getting a lot more expensive, and these classes help bring the costs down.”

Her story, and countless others, serve as reminders of the power teachers have to help effect good, and how important it is that we come together to position young people of all socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds so they can realize their full potential.

Each year, our graduates enthusiastically return from college to offer advice and provide testimonials about how our AP English and social studies classes and their AP credits have transformed their lives.

They are among the very best writers, thinkers and leaders of their own undergraduate communities, from Brown to Yale to the Honors College at Western Kentucky University. They are beginning graduate school early, double-majoring, traveling abroad. They openly and proudly talk about how they benefited from the work ethic, rigor, confidence and skills they acquired in the Advanced Placement program at Bowling Green High School.

When we remove barriers and support all students to achieve their potential, our commonwealth, our students and their families truly benefit.

Ron and Ada Skillern teach at Bowling Green High School. Ada teaches English and composition. Ron, who teaches history and comparative government, was recently named 2017 Kentucky Teacher of the Year.