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Principal keeps student in AP class she rejected

Sherry Arritt's daughter told her counselors, English teachers and the principal at Barren County High School in Kentucky that she did not want to take Advanced Placement English Literature. She was a 4.0 student. She wanted to study nursing in college. She already had AP French on her schedule. AP English was too much. She wanted the less demanding honors English course.

When the school refused to change her schedule, her parents repeated that seemingly reasonable decision to her principal, Keith Hale, and the district superintendent, Jerry Ralston. Both men refused to let her drop AP. They had decided that too many students were taking courses that were too easy for them, missing a chance to challenge themselves and prepare for college.

"I really believe if we had continued to let families decide" to put children in courses beneathe their abilities "we would still have the 30-plus ACT [the equivalent of 2000-plus on the SAT] student sitting in Basic English," Hale said.

The Arritt parents were so upset by this that they transferred their daughter to another school for her senior year. What happened to them dramatizes an issue of growing importance when many educators are doing everything they can to prepare students for higher education, even if some of the students and their families think they go too far.

I can hear some of you mumbling: What is Mathews doing? His nutty campaign for AP and International Baccalaureate and his love of anything to which the word rigor can be attached is the reason why educators push this stuff too hard. Is he finally confessing his sins of overdoing challenging courses?

Nope. I still think that American high schools are far more likely to give students too little rather than too much work. In many subject areas, only half or less of students ready for AP according to their PSAT scores ever take those courses. What the Arritt family encountered at Barren County High is very rare--the first such incident I have encountered. What I hope is that by telling their story I will give well-intentioned educators a chance to reflect on the fact that it is possible pile on too much of a good thing, and that they should avoid doing that.

Here is Sherry Arritt's account of what happened during the 2007-2008 school year:

"During our daughter's junior year she was badgered by counselors and members of the English department to sign up for AP English. (I'm sure it was done because they were being pressured by their boss.) When it got to the point she couldn't walk to class without a mini-conference with one of these people, I went to the guidance counselors and asked for them to please respect our family's choices and leave her alone.  I told them she wanted Honors English not AP English for her Senior Year 2008-2009.   She was a 4.0 Honor student, in the Gifted & Talented program and ranked very close to the top of her class.  Although she made excellent grades in Honors English, the AP English class would not contribute to her pursuit of a BS degree in Nursing.  As any parent knows, who has a child enrolled in the AP program, the extra work that is given AP students can be quite overwhelming and leaves no time for any extracurricular activities.  

"When the schedules were handed out-- there it was in black and white: AP English!  At first she was told schedule changes would not be allowed.   Then, she was told that a meeting with the principal, Mr. Hale, was the only way to get it changed. (Her other classes included Accounting, Visual Arts, AP French and PE.)  

"We (my husband, my daughter and I) made an appointment with Mr. Hale. We explained our reasoning for changing her schedule, but it fell on deaf ears.  Mr. Hale made a ludicrous argument saying 'if she can't do the work...we'll get her help.' We kept telling him 'she is capable, but, she wants dual credit science courses instead.'  He also insisted on taking rabbit trails about how they gave her the PE class she wanted.  Whoopee!  (The PE class was one she asked for).  The meeting was without a doubt a total waste of our time.  Mr. Hale reared back in his chair.  His hands placed with fingers interlocked behind his head and told us, 'She has been placed' and it wasn't going to change unless we got a doctor's Note.  A doctor's note?  

"We left the meeting with nothing accomplished for our daughter.  When we called the superintendent, Dr. Ralston, he was unavailable and we were told he would get back to us on Monday.  It was Thursday next before he returned our call, and it was during our phone conversation Dr. Ralston told us that he had to back up Mr. Hale's decision, because the teachers and administrators knew what was best for our daughter.  The final decision about what classes students would be enrolled in, would be Barren's to make.  Our role as the parent of our child was being usurped by the Barren County school system.   I informed Dr. Ralston that we are her parents, we are college graduates, we have taught in the classroom and that we have our child's best interest at heart, including the knowledge of her chosen career path and the class schedule Barren had selected for our daughter was in no way reflective of her aptitude or desires.  

"In the end, we refused to get a doctor's note stating for the record that our daughter had some sort of stress-mental disorder concerning AP English.  How would that look to her future employer?  REALLY!  Also, what part of character education covers telling lies to get your way?  

"We chose instead to move our daughter to Glasgow High School.  She was welcomed with open arms.  The folks at GHS worked with us, making recommendations, but allowing us the final choice.  Phone calls were made, and paperwork was expedited.  It was the BEST year she ever had in high school!  Not only did she get ALL the classes she wanted (including Honors English--NOT AP ENGLISH), she got the dual credit science courses she needed.   She graduated with all honors including 21 hours of college credit."

When I shared the Arritts' story with Ralston, he said he had listened to them and had checked with Hale to see if he was following district policy, and had the approval of the district director of instruction. Getting yes answers to both questions, he backed up his principal.

"To my recollection for the three plus years this process has been in place, Ms. Arritt is the only parent to bring a grievance directly to me," Ralston said. "I understand that it is sometimes a long and difficult road when we literally begin to demand excellence and I would never say we haven’t made a misstep along the way. I can say that I fully support expecting the most of all of our students, especially the best and brightest, each and every day."

Hale sent a long letter in response:

"At Barren County High School we do place students in classes. This decision came about after I walked into a general English class and once again saw a student who had, as a junior, scored above 30 in reading on the ACT. I assume you are familiar with the Charles Osgood poem 'Pretty Good'. That poem has for years described our school. We knew we had a pretty good school at the time, with pretty good students but if we were going to have a great school with great students we had to make some bold changes. Our School Based Council made the decision to start placing students in math and English classes based on ability, performance, and teacher recommendation (any student could move up but couldn’t move down). To monitor and make sure students had support structures in place to ensure success we also requested and was granted by our local board of education to hire two curriculum specialists, one in English and one in math to assist students where needed.

"The issues we were having at that time with students and parents about schedules were centered on students wanting an easy schedule their senior year. One parent went as far as to say that her child had worked hard every year and deserved an easy schedule his last year. With those types of conversations we made little adjustments to the schedule and instead ensured parents that our specialist would work with their child individually and we would meet any need they would have. The program was and continues to be a huge success. And now in just four years the conversations with students and parents about scheduling have done a 360. For example just a few weeks ago a student and parent came in and talked about the child wanting to go into engineering in college and really wanting to take AP Calculus and AP Statistics but hadn’t had Computer Aided Drafting (CAD). He had originally been placed in AP Literature but really didn’t want the class at the expense of the CAD class. The academic integrity of his schedule was evident, as was his previous three years of classes. Our recommendation to him was to take AP Calculus and AP Statistics and since he’s going into engineering, we would work in the CAD and drop the AP Literature. (He did have AP Language). That same week a young lady who hopes to go pre-med had a similar request. She wanted AP Statistics and physics as opposed to AP Literature. That request was granted. The student whose parent felt he deserved an easier senior year and could not provide an academic rationale has not been granted a waiver.

"We feel we are very student centered and we work with each and every child to ensure they reach their fullest potential. We are proud of our AP and Dual Credit programs at Barren County High School and try to promote each to the best of our ability. I would never be so arrogant as to say we haven’t made mistakes. I sincerely hope that none are ever made that are detrimental to our students. I am very glad that Ms. Arritt’s daughter ended up with what she considers the best school year ever. We are fortunate to be in an area where students actually have a possible choice of three high schools to attend.

"For every one student who has been disgruntled by this process I feel certain I could produce many more that come to us after their first year in college saying 'Thank you, thank you, thank you for what you made me do!'

I gave both sides more space than I usually do because the case is so unusual, and the details so important. I like the system Barren County installed, but I think the Arritts justified their argument for their child. She had a challenging program. It didn't make sense to me for the school to battle over that one course.

Most high school students in this country who go to college never take even one college-level course in high school. Coaxing each of them into one AP, IB or local college course would be enough for me. I am glad Hale and Ralston have set high standards. But next time a family like the Arritts visits them, I hope they offer a little more slack.

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By Jay Mathews  | April 9, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Trends  | Tags:  Barren County High School, Jerry Ralston, Keith Hale, Sherry Arritt, student changes schools to avoid AP course, student forced to take AP course  
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Posted by: VardaDona09 | April 9, 2010 6:02 AM | Report abuse

You said that most high schools still give students "too little rather than too much work". Those words really struck me because they highlight the issue I have with your focus on AP and IB. I fully support both of those programs and am thrilled to see students taking part in them.

However, if we are focused on how much work schools are giving students rather than the quality of instruction or the level of thinking required we are doing a serious disservice.

Posted by: Jenny04 | April 9, 2010 6:44 AM | Report abuse

I'm sorry but that is pretty horrible. I am a firm believer in letting kids try to take AP classes that they want to attempt, but if you are forcing kids to take AP classes they don't want to make your school look good (and let's not kid ourselves, that is a lot of what this is about) then you are doing them a disservice.

The parents had a perfectly reasonable and defensible explanation for why their daughter wanted to take Honors instead of AP, and was ignored. She wasn't taking no APs and trying to create a fluffy schedule, she knew exactly what she wanted and tried to arrange it. If the situation was reversed and she wanted to take AP but was "only" allowed to take Honors, we would be hearing about how the parents were ignored when they wanted to push their children to succeed.

I like the AP programs a lot, but the greatest weakness that approaches like this have is that they are making kids take courses that they are either unprepared for (maybe not in this case) or don't want to take. As an occasional AP teacher I can tell you there is nothing worse then a student in an AP class that doesn't want to be there.

Posted by: Wyrm1 | April 9, 2010 7:06 AM | Report abuse

I dunno- the rest of that young woman's schedule- Accounting, Visual Arts, AP French and PE - looks pretty light to me. If that's what her schedule looked like in previous years, no wonder she has a 4.0. If I were the principal I'd insist on something else challenging as well.

AP English is not so bad- you just have to do the reading, which is what a lot of HS seniors don't want to do.

Posted by: bubba777 | April 9, 2010 8:32 AM | Report abuse

Bubba 777, You need to understand, the other classes were NOT classes she asked for, they were classes SHE WAS PLACED in. I know this girl and their family and I can tell you, Amelia had Honors classes and dual credit and AP classes. She took classes like anatomy & physiology, Pre Calculus, chemistry, French and all the other tough ones. I know the principal Keith Hale and they described him to a "T". He is arrogant and what he's done at that school has screwed up a lot. Other people don't speak out because they work in the system and don't want to risk losing their job! Bubba you seem to have missed the point. She wanted the Science classes to prepare her for a medical career.

Posted by: SouthernKentuckyMom | April 9, 2010 8:58 AM | Report abuse

SouthernKentuckyMom says: "She wanted the Science classes to prepare her for a medical career."

You've described one of the problems of a one size fits all approach. Very often the "smart" kids do their research and find out what classes they need to prepare them for the college program they are entering. My son was a music major with an emphasis on sound recording technology. We fought with his school for him to drop science junior year in order to take music theory as he would be tested on music theory as part of his college admissions process. He then skipped chemistry and took physics which went along with his major in sound recording. He was an average student with a strong work ethic who actually never took any AP classes. He was accepted at 4 of the 5 colleges he applied to and he ended up with some decent scholarship money. Some college programs have very specific requirements that are not necessarily met with the traditional high school college prep classes (including AP). Those families who take the time to research this ahead of time typically have to fight to get their kids into the classes that would ultimately benefit them the most. I teach in Montgomery County and it appears that the school system would rather see kids get C's and even D's in AP classes than to see them get higher grades in Honors classes. Does that really benefit them?

Posted by: musiclady | April 9, 2010 10:04 AM | Report abuse

AP French is not a "light" class. She could take a lot of time to study French if she wanted to get a four or five on that test. I wonder if the principal ever took French or another foreign language. It doesn't sound like it.

Posted by: celestun100 | April 9, 2010 10:16 AM | Report abuse

Advising, encouraging, cajoling... these are all things a school should do to try to get a student to do the "right" thing. But when a student and her family make a decision, the school needs to respect that decision.

Where does a school get off forcing a child to take a particular course, anyway? Back when I went to school, there were specific graduation requirements. You met them, you got a diploma. You didn't meet them, you didn't get a diploma.

By the way, the school was right that the kid should have been in AP Lit. AP Lit is a blowoff class, and it is 100x better than taking freshman lit in college (a requirement in most schools). Not that being right excuses the school's overriding the family's decision.

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | April 9, 2010 10:59 AM | Report abuse

OK, I am back to being the math nitpick, but the principal was WRONG in his use of the phrase " And now in just four years the conversations with students and parents about scheduling have done a 360." He means they did a 180. 360 would get you back to where you started from.

I know this will sound obnoxious, but I cannot trust someone to be an academic leader who does not know the basic academics expected of the students in the school in which he is a leader. This is not even high school level mathematics. How can an academic leader, especially one who judges that the schools know best, be taken seriously when he does not know middle school math?

Posted by: kdking19 | April 9, 2010 12:15 PM | Report abuse

"(and let's not kid ourselves, that is a lot of what this is about)"


I don't much care either way. If a student can be "forced" into tougher courses because he wants a fluff schedule, then he can be "forced" into tougher courses for any reason at all. Once the school is allowed to force a kid, what does it matter the reason?

But make no mistake, this is about ratings on the Challenge Index--which Jay openly acknowledges, because he's an honest guy.

The thing about Jay is that he really is incapable of thinking systemically. He takes everything on a case by case basis, and doesn't think about the larger policy issues.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | April 9, 2010 1:02 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Hale needs to improve his grammar and math skills. 360 degrees is used on a plane angle consisting of a full rotation, ending in the direct spot where the degree began. In this case, He is saying Barren County is back to where they were several years ago as a "pretty good" school. Mr. Hale also uses too many run-on sentences in his story. His use of language is written at a 6th grade reading level. I would like to challenge Mr. Hale to take Advanced Placement English Composition and pass with a score of 5. As for Mr. and Mrs. Arritt, they knew what was best for their daughter. I am appalled that Mr. Hale and the Barren County School System attempted to take the place of Miss Arritt's parents (I would have to say they stepped way out of line).
As for Miss Arritt, I am sure she deserved better than that.

Posted by: BlueEyedSnowWhite | April 9, 2010 1:41 PM | Report abuse

I applaud the efforts of this principal. In this day and age when almost 50% of entering college freshmen require remedial courses, it is refreshing to see that this school is taking a stand and doing what they can to ensure students are ready for a post-secondary education. Schools must do a better job of preparing our future genteration. Congratulations to this school system for having such high standards and expectations, too bad the parents didn't have such expectations for their own child.

Posted by: wkufan01 | April 9, 2010 6:23 PM | Report abuse

Jenny04 is quite right. It isnt about how much work they are getting, which was my inadequate shorthand for better teaching of more challenging courses.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | April 9, 2010 6:44 PM | Report abuse

Shame on you Barren County School system, Jerry Ralston and Keith Hale! A distict policy of placing (forcing)students in AP classes on their ability ...REALLY? In other words, a 'One Size Fits All' program? AP programs are great, BUT the student has to want to be in the program for it to be successful. To think that you would 'run off' a student ranked in the top of her class with a 4.0 GPA for her last year in high school, unless she got a doctor's note to change her schedule, is a crime. Sure sounds like you really don't have your students best interest at heart, but may an agenda to make Newsweek's list? The idea that Mr. Hale would pretend to know more about this student, and her needs for her future, than her own educated parents shows real arrogance. Whatever happened to letting the students, with the support of their parents, along with the teachers decide what courses are best suited for the student? Don't you think the parents know their child, their study habits, and their stress level MUCH better than an school principal or school based council?

Posted by: IPFreeley2 | April 10, 2010 1:00 AM | Report abuse

Ultimately the freedom of choice should be utilized in this situation. It should be up to the student under parental guidance. I do see a need to assist certain individuals to set higher goals for themselves.
If the student can prove just cause as to why they should not take the course, someone should listen and evaluate the individual needs of the student based on the students long term goals. Then make the decision with goodness to all concerned.

Posted by: marysmith7185 | April 10, 2010 2:22 PM | Report abuse

I agree with most people on this ap french is kind of tough. But you should challenge yourself in make your self a better person at the long run your only helping yourself by fartherin your knowledge

Posted by: doubletapking | April 11, 2010 7:47 PM | Report abuse

You know, I'm still unconvinced that this isn't an unintended consequence of the Challenge Index making it into the big leagues of publicity. This school figured that they could look better in the rankings by having this student take an AP rather than an honors class, and so they did so. That probably wasn't their only reason for setting up her schedule that way, but I can't believe it wasn't a contributing factor--I'm in higher education, where administrations have been dancing to the tune of the US News rankings for years. Such things happen more frequently than those who make the lists want to admit.

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Posted by: itkonlyyoupp | April 12, 2010 10:18 AM | Report abuse

Mrs. Arritt's daughter was obviously going to benefit with a dual credit science course. Why did the Barren County School administration deny her the class?

"The issues we were having at that time with students and parents about schedules were centered on students wanting an easy schedule their senior year."

This was not the case. The school made the wrong decision based on the wrong assumptions. In this economic recession; state and federal funding are key to the success of a school system in a poor county.

"This school figured that they could look better in the rankings, by having this student take an AP rather than an honors class, so they did so."

The above is entirely the truth. They tout the benefits and excessive strain of AP courses, and how it better prepares their children for college. What better way to reap the rewards of government funding?

This funding would appear to help pay for all the athletic housing and football field renovations. Oh, and renovation of two classrooms.

Posted by: blacksheep2600 | April 12, 2010 3:33 PM | Report abuse

Student should have the right to have some say so in the classes they take as long as they have all the necessary required courses. This situation had nothing to do with this young ladies education. This was clearly a personal issue with the principal asserting authority and his personal views on a student.

Posted by: micheleswarn | April 12, 2010 5:51 PM | Report abuse

(blacksheep2600) I totally agree with you he did this to this young lady to get up the AP Statistics. The Principal should really be ashamed of his self. Now he has a bad reputation and lost some of the faith of his other students and parents. The school definitely made a bad decision.

Posted by: micheleswarn | April 12, 2010 6:04 PM | Report abuse

I was on the side of the student until I saw what her other classes were. Sheesh. In my high school, only the French would have been considered an academic course.

What kind of school lets a pre-nursing student get away without calculus and AP science (biology, chemistry or physics) in her senior year?

Accounting, PE and visual arts are electives, not college prep subjects.

Posted by: hunterpr | April 12, 2010 9:47 PM | Report abuse

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