Skyleigh D’Ambrosia, 17, loves learning about science. She’s taken pretty much every science class available at her high school in the western Massachusetts town of Athol.
"I want to be a doctor when I’m older," she said. "So those are just kind of important classes."
D’Ambrosia wanted to take Advanced Placement (AP) chemistry and AP biology in the fall. At first it didn’t seem like her plan to take these college level courses was going to pan out because her school doesn’t always have the resources to offer a wide variety of advanced science classes. But then she heard that her district is trying something new: some AP science classes will be offered online. D'Ambrosia had mixed feelings about that.
"I’m not going to lie, I was kind of mad," she said. "I was looking forward to having more classes with our science staff. But I guess if there’s not enough kids interested, then it works."
Officials at Athol High School typically need about eight students to express interest in an AP course to justify the resources and the teacher's time.
"It’s kind of got to make sense for us to allocate a teacher," explained David King, the principal of Athol High School. He says certain subjects like AP literature and statistics draw enough students pretty regularly. But most others don’t.
"It really is a puzzle trying to plug everything together," said King. He explained that he and his staff have to balance priorities like keeping class sizes small for freshman and sophomores with things like offering AP classes.
Limited budgets are part of the issue, and so is staffing. It’s been hard for the Athol-Royalston Regional School District to find teachers who are qualified to teach advanced science classes. King thinks the school’s rural location in western Massachusetts has a lot to do with that.
"I think people plug us in and see that we’re going to be an hour [or more] commute and that’s something that doesn’t lead us to have a lot of candidates," he said.
Which is why King was mostly excited when he heard about a new state program that would give districts access to virtual AP classes.
"I see it as an opportunity to get our students exposed to as many courses as a larger school east or west of us would have," said King.
"The fear factor of using technology evaporated very quickly. So all of a sudden, there was an infrastructure that could be leveraged more fully than there might have been literally just a year and a half ago."Bob LePage
Rural schools and even some gateway city schools have been struggling with these issues for a long time. State officials say they’ve been looking for ways to bridge that opportunity gap for the last five years.
"We had dialogues in a number of communities about, 'Is there a way to share instructors? Could you have a teacher drive from school to school or community to community?' " explained Bob LePage, Massachusetts' assistant secretary for Career Education.
Virtual learning was discussed too, but at the time, it seemed like a heavy lift. That’s not the case anymore — now that most schools in the state have the infrastructure to offer virtual classes due to the pandemic.
"The fear factor of using technology evaporated very quickly," said LePage. "So all of a sudden, there was an infrastructure that could be leveraged more fully than there might have been literally just a year and a half ago."
The grant-funded program will allow students to enroll in science and math courses through a Massachusetts-based nonprofit called VHS Learning, which has been teaching AP classes since 2003. Their classes are a mix of asynchronous learning and live teacher connection.
While Athol principal David King signed on to the plan, he does have some concerns.
"I don’t think there’s any substitute for in person learning and the teaching that happens with it," he said. "Just the connection and the personal relationship [students] have with the teacher, the other students that are working side by side with them."
The Baker administration has also expressed concerns about the impact of remote learning on students and how much they can learn in that environment. Is it fair that the only way for some rural schools to offer AP courses is online? No, says LePage, an assistant secretary of education in the governor's office. But, he added, "If we didn’t do this, and build these kind of capacities, what I can tell you is these students would still have zero opportunities."
LePage also noted that AP courses are something students can opt-in to, which wasn't the case with remote learning during the pandemic, and they won't be spending all day on the computer this time. And he added that the VHS programming is different from crisis learning that schools were forced to use in 2020. The nonprofit has been offering AP classes for 18 years and their student passage rates often meet or exceed national averages.
For now, LePage is looking at this grant program as more of a pilot. He hopes to find an option that meets the quality of in-person learning soon. LePage also stresses that this type of programming is not meant to replace any existing AP class, but instead act as a supplement for districts that can't offer the AP science courses they want.
In Athol, about 30 students have signed up to take at least one AP course online in the fall. Student Skyleigh D’Ambrosia is one of them. She said she’s getting burnt out with remote learning, which is why she's still on the fence about the program. It's hard to get excited about the idea of spending a third of her day learning on her computer again next year.
"I just hope they’re good," said D'Ambrosia. "Because I’m going to be really upset if two of my classes next year suck."
This article was originally published on June 15, 2021.
This segment aired on June 15, 2021.