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National Award Shows School’s Focus on AP Classes is Paying Off

The mystery is afoot in Emily Gunsch’s classroom at Grand River Preparatory High School. All the clues have been laid out, and it’s up to the students to solve the case using the lessons they have learned using synthesis.
 
The crime scene investigation Gunsch has staged includes props of all kinds and one of Grand River Prep’s deans playing the part of the “victim,” graciously taking time to lie motionless while wearing fake blood. In Gunsch’s Advanced Placement language class, each student arrives at a different conclusion in the murder mystery production, setting the stage for what they will have to do on the AP test.
 
Gunsch’s class is part of a challenging and inclusive curriculum that has Grand River Prep outperforming the local district. At Grand River Prep, each student must take two AP courses to graduate. In going above and beyond in their preparation, the school staff have prepared generations of students for college with engaging courses.
                                                                                                                   
In fact, Grand River Prep is the only high school in the state to receive both the Platinum Award and the Access Award for AP Honor Roll School Recognition. Grand River Prep is among the 4,570 schools in the U.S. and Canada to be honored.
 
“We have a really odd and particular group of teachers in our building who are just the best at creativity, and that helps get kids engaged in AP classes early on,” Gunsch said. “We have a bunch of families who have sent all of their kids to us. When the older siblings take some of these courses, they tell their younger siblings.”
 
Creating an AP Culture
Grand River Prep has consistently focused on preparing students for college, but teachers have made it a point to promote equity of late. Classes like Gunsch’s have a creative appeal to students, but staff have strived to show that taking AP courses can be fiscally lucrative in earning college credit as well as intellectually stimulating.
 
“We’ve had a culture at the school of all students should have access to AP courses not just students that are ‘AP-ready,’” said Jordan Dischinger-Smedes, who teaches AP Environmental Science. “The phrase that we use a lot is ‘Our AP classes look like our hallways.’ Our AP classes really are representative of the broader student body.”

While two AP courses is the requirement, many Grand River Prep students go further. Part of that is because teachers actively go to the other classes and give students suggestions of AP courses they might not have considered.

“The teachers spend a lot of time making it a place where kids want to go because it seems really welcoming,” said Jayme McWain, AP psychology teacher. “The classes are hard, but they feel supported in that way.”
 
Grand River Prep has created a culture that normalizes AP courses and doesn’t look at them as a daunting task. That mindset has been achieved through messaging to students and parents and how much teachers emphasize the courses.
 
AP courses are part of the everyday dialogue at Grand River Prep, as students talk among themselves about which courses they’ll take. Counselors help students pick the right AP course that fits them. And having staff continuity, with staff teaching subjects for years, also breeds student achievement.
 
“They learn not only their subject matter and the ins and outs of that AP course better, but we as a staff learn what works for our students,” Dischinger-Smedes said. “How can we capitalize on a student’s success in AP Spanish and try to help him also be successful in AP stats or AP languages. How can we use that information to coach that student into what might be a better fit for an AP class for their second AP class, that happens here plenty.”

Comparing 12th grade students who take an AP exam and scored at least a 3+ qualified credit recommendation, Grand River Prep students are not just outperforming neighboring schools, they’re outperforming them nationally as well. But there still is room for growth, even with such a strong foundation the school has built.

“They feel like they belong in an AP class,” Dischinger-Smedes said. “There’s a palpable sense in the school that students feel they belong in AP classes and that they know that the teachers feel they’re up to the challenge. When you raise that bar they don’t look at it as something that’s too hard for them or that they don’t belong in. It just feels part of the fabric of the school. It’s just what we do here.”
 
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About Grand River Prep:
Grand River Preparatory High School is a tuition-free, public charter school in Kentwood, Michigan, serving students in ninth through twelfth grade. It is part of the National Heritage Academies network, which includes more than 100 tuition-free, public charter schools serving more than 65,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade across nine states. For more information, visit nhaschools.com.

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