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Where Advanced Classes Are Routine

College-level courses draw hundreds of students at cramped North Hollywood High. Some in the program for the highly gifted take, and pass, eight or more of the difficult exams.

December 09, 1996|ELAINE WOO | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Marvin Ordonez downed a potion of sweetened lettuce water to calm his nerves before taking the Advanced Placement exam in Spanish literature. Teacher Randy Vail plies his students with potassium-rich bananas to ward off hand cramps during the three-hour AP English exam. Grace Lee prays.

If this all sounds a bit much, consider the results.

Around the country, the majority of college-bound seniors suffer through one, maybe two, Advanced Placement tests, an academic ordeal endured partly for the intellectual thrill and partly for the potential reward of college credit. But walk the halls of North Hollywood High School and you'll find not only Ordonez and Lee but 16-year-old Takako Mukai, who has passed nine AP tests . . . so far. She's taking five more in May.

Here at the home of Los Angeles Unified's magnet program for "highly gifted" high schoolers--those with IQs below 145 need not apply--AP fervor runs at a higher pitch than at any other public high school in the nation.

Last May, 410 North Hollywood students--from both the magnet and the regular campus that houses the gifted program--took 1,077 AP exams in 24 subjects. Nineteen of those students scored at least a 4 (3 is passing, 5 is tops) on eight or more exams, earning the moniker of National AP Scholar. North Hollywood thus produced 2% of the national total of such scholars, each of whom have chalked up enough credit to conceivably skip the first two years of college.

North Hollywood High also produced the second- and third-highest scoring scholars in the country. And five of the 19 scholars, including Mukai, earned the distinction as juniors.

"That's a fantastic achievement," said Wade Curry of the College Board, the national nonprofit association that administers the AP program.

Of the 11,000 high schools nationwide that gave AP exams last May, only one had more AP scholars (21) than North Hollywood--Harvard-Westlake, the tony private school in the foothills of Studio City.

But that's the sort of place that dropped $13 million on a state-of-the-art science building last year. At North Hollywood, the idea of a novel laboratory is an overgrown garden where the horticulture club tends sunflowers and the AP English students roam about seeking inspiration for their poetry.

In Curry's view, the fact that most of North Hollywood's Advanced Placement scholars are certified geniuses doesn't dilute the school's accomplishment. Other schools with heavy concentrations of brainy kids fared far less well. New York City's famed Stuyvesant High, one of the country's most selective public high schools, had three national scholars this year.

Curry praised North Hollywood's diversity, too, noting that its scholars included the nation's highest-scoring black and Latino students.

On a nondescript stretch of Magnolia Boulevard, the grubby campus is jammed with almost 3,500 bodies, requiring students to share banged-up lockers and squeeze 36 or more to a classroom. Many teachers lack permanent rooms and juggle schedules to accommodate the crushing enrollment.

"This is not a country club," said college counselor Susan Bonoff. "This is a very traditional urban high school. Our kids are not getting their education on a silver platter."

Yet North Hollywood has offered a high-powered curriculum for decades, part of the reason officials chose it eight years ago as the site of the district's only high school magnet program exclusively for the highly gifted. Bonoff and others attribute the school's success on the exams in part to the faculty's dedication to providing the courses and ensuring that the exams go smoothly. But the intangible factor is how the exceptionally intelligent teenagers have turned the opportunity into an academic feeding frenzy.

Difficult Exam

Advanced Placement courses have long been recognized as one of the perks of a high school education that give a fortunate few a leg up. But they also mean more work for a school--teachers with special skills and knowledge.

The program, developed by the College Board about 40 years ago, offers a college-level curriculum and teacher training to high schools. Most courses last a year and culminate in a two- or three-hour exam. A score of 3 or above will qualify a student for credit at most colleges and universities.

The notion that only affluent schools can succeed with such classes was exploded in 1982 by Jaime Escalante, the charismatic former Garfield High School math teacher who encouraged a group of academically undistinguished students at that Eastside school to "stand and deliver" on the AP calculus test.

Even so, the average high school, according to the College Board, today offers only about six out of the 29 AP courses. Just this fall, the Tomas Rivera Institute, a Claremont-based research center, complained that predominately black and Latino schools in California still offer fewer AP courses than those in affluent neighborhoods with more white students.

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