Corbett High School's Success Story

Western News

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Corbett High School’s gains in AP® and overall student achievement have garnered its students, teachers and community nationwide acclaim, and led educators to examine how its successful plan might be replicated in other districts.

In recent years, the Oregon high school has landed on Newsweek’s and U.S. News &World Report’s lists of top high schools in the nation, and has been recognized particularly for its AP program. Corbett’s graduates have broadened their opportunities for college, with many attending top universities around the country, including Harvard, Brown, Reed and the University of Southern California.

It has taken time and an intense commitment from students, staff and families to develop the “AP for All” plan put in place by principal Randy Trani and then-superintendent Bob Dunton. Trani said that the school district, which teaches K–12 at a single site, has enhanced the curriculum at lower grades to prepare students for the challenging work that awaits in high school.

Corbett, a rural community school in Multnomah County, about 20 miles from Portland, has about 300 high school students. It offered its first AP Exams in 2001, with just five students taking a total of five AP Exams in two subjects. In May 2009, Corbett High School students took 524 AP Exams, averaging more than 12 per graduate. Corbett students’ rigorous course work prepares them to succeed on the exams as well as in college, giving many more students the confidence to pursue higher education, Trani said.

“Making AP a mandatory program was a calculated move,” Trani said. “We are extremely poorly funded relative to everyone else in Oregon. For the program to be sustainable, we needed to have at least 50 percent participation.”

After speaking with the area’s major employers, labor unions, community college leaders and other experts, Trani decided to push toward making the school the best it could be at preparing students for college. For AP, he chose to increase the numbers in the courses students had to take — English and math — and later to add U.S. history and government courses.

“I took over the scheduling,” he said. “I sent letters to parents saying I believed their children should attempt the AP course, and over the years, it became mandatory for students to take AP courses. Now students take no less than six AP courses in their four high school years. The average student takes about 11.

“I will gladly take choices away from 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds to give choices to 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds. I believe that’s what we’re doing — making the choices for them now so that they have better options in the future.”

Over time, the school’s AP program has expanded to include World History, Biology, Psychology, Calculus, Spanish Language, Statistics, Physics, Chemistry, Environmental Science, Studio Art and Art History. Corbett will add AP Human Geography in the coming school year.

Teachers were reluctant at first, Trani said, but the school committed to paying for extensive professional development and offering unsurpassed resources and support. Teachers attend College Board workshops and conferences, and they are given financial support for other resources or professional development activities that will benefit their work in the classroom.

Students also receive the financial support needed for the exams; the school district covers all of the test fees. Trani estimates the district will pay about $50,000 in AP Exam fees this year, but may generate far more than that in tuition credits for students who are successful on their AP Exams.

Corbett has experienced an increase in the numbers of students succeeding on AP Exams as access has expanded. “But the high scores are really the icing on the cake,” Trani said. “The cake, really, is the student who has learned so much over the course of the year and has gained confidence in his or her ability to achieve in a college-level class.”

Several years ago, about one-quarter of the school’s seniors reported that they were going to go to a community college; another quarter said they were planning to attend a four-year university, Trani said. Very few looked out of state or to selective universities. The school’s college-going rate has soared to nearly 90 percent, with about 80 percent of those students planning to attend a four-year university.

Trani, who has written a book about his experiences, said his competitive nature was a driving factor as he, Bob Dunton and other staff members led the changes at Corbett. “I looked at the list of Oregon schools and how we compared. … I thought we could be the best. And I really believe that we have to want for every child what we want for our own children.

“What we have found at Corbett is that the more we ask students to do, the better they do overall,” Trani said. “With these challenging courses, our students believe we’re taking them seriously, and they respond to that.”

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