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Stories of Promising Practice: How Grand Valley High is closing the achievement gap

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Advanced Placement for All: How Grand Valley High School is closing the achievement gap

Grand Valley High School is the only high school in the small, 1,180-student Garfield 16 school district. The 318-student school sits on the outskirts of Parachute, a town of 1,100 people located adjacent to Interstate 70, halfway between Grand Junction and Glenwood Springs. The town relies heavily on the natural gas industry for jobs and economic activity, and the recent downturn in that industry has put Parachute under significant economic stress.

The high school’s student population is 48 percent low-income, as measured by eligibility for federally subsidized school lunches. Some 33 percent of Grand Valley High School students are Latino and about 60 percent are white.

Despite the economic hard times, Grand Valley High School has experienced moderate enrollment increases over the past decade. Principal Ryan Frink, in his 10th year in the job, said there were just 265 students in the school when he arrived in 2006.


Through the 2011-12 school year, Grand Valley High offered no Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Frink said there may have been an unspoken assumption among some in the community that AP was designed for students different from the typical Parachute high schooler.

“I’ve had parents tell me their kid was too dumb for AP, but I think that was really driven by their own fear or perception, based on their own high school experience,” he said.

The school came to its decision to implement an AP for all program beginning with the 2012-13 school year in an organic way, as a logical culmination of a reform process that spanned several years. The reforms were spurred by a widespread realization within the district that too many students were graduating unprepared for college, technical training programs, or many jobs available to high school graduates.

“We asked ourselves a basic question: are we providing kids with what they need to know to be successful?” Frink said. The conclusion: in too many cases the answer was no.

Staci McGruder, a math teacher and interventionist at Grand Valley, recalled that before the school embarked on its reform journey, math classes at the early high school grades acted as a sorting process, with many kids bailing out as early as possible.

“We’d offer one calculus class, and there would be maybe five or six kids in it,” she said.

As a first step toward overhauling the school’s approach, the staff undertook an in-depth examination of its grading systems and policies. What emerged, Frink said, was the realization that grading was so highly subjective as to be almost nonsensical. Some teachers assigned a heavier weight to homework than to tests. Others did the opposite. In some cases, kids who never did homework but did well on tests got higher grades than kids who diligently did their homework but struggled on tests.

“We had to ask ourselves whether we were authentically meeting kids’ needs,” Frink said.

In 2008, the school implemented a standards-based grading system. As part of that system, each student got two grades for each class, on a scale of one to four. One grade was for content – how well the student demonstrated what he or she had learned -- and one was for responsibility – how much ownership the student took for the duties and requirements of being a student.

A student who takes her responsibilities seriously but struggles with content will ultimately succeed if the school “spirals” content, returning to important themes and concepts repeatedly until all students understand them. But a student who “gets” content while shirking responsibility is likely to struggle in college or the workplace.

Out of this work grew a belief in pushing a growth mindset, a popular concept developed by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. “It’s about constantly getting better,” Frink said. “In public education, we get kids where they’re at, and we have to work to help them understand they can get anywhere they need to with enough effort and support.”

And the growth mindset work is what ultimately led to AP for all.

Introducing AP classes to a school that had never offered any was an easy sell to the staff. What proved a little tougher was selling the concept that all students should take AP courses. But Frink was determined that this was the way to go.

“The myth that AP is just for the smartest, most driven kids, it’s an obsolete concept,” he said. “You focus on differentiating instruction and focusing on the skill levels of kids. The philosophy is lifting the lid off education.”

Four years in, McGruder and other teachers are sold. “There are so many benefits,” she said. “Even kids who aren’t going to get a qualifying score (for college credit -- three or higher on a scale of five) are really learning a different level of work ethic. And it gives kids a new faith in their abilities that they can do work at this higher level.”

Grand Valley High School phased in its AP offerings. But it would be inaccurate to say the school started slow. In 2012, before the program started, students took zero AP exams. In the spring of 2013, they took 229, and 620 in the spring of 2016. 

That first year, the school offered four AP courses: one for freshmen, two for juniors, and a calculus class for those deemed ready, regardless of grade level. The number of AP classes climbed steadily, with 10 offered the following year, 13 in 2014-15 and 18 this year.

CEI’s program pays for half of the AP science, English, computer science, and math exam fees – $92 per test or $62 for low-income students. It also funds the four-day teacher AP training.

One key to the program’s success at Grand Valley has been the realization that not all students will be able to succeed in a fast-paced, content-rich AP class. Some modifications are necessary to provide all students with the best chance for success.

After the program’s first year, teachers and administrators realized that it wasn’t serving students well in some subjects to place them all in identical classes. Beginning with the second year, the school introduced two tiers of AP biology and literature classes, which was where “the differentiation of skills was enormous,” Frink said.

In the literature class, for example, one class will read lengthy passages of challenging works aloud instead of having them assigned as homework. Over the course of the semester, that class might only get through four or five pieces of literature, while a more accelerated AP class will complete eight.

But the slower-paced class will delve just as deeply into those four or five pieces as would any AP literature class in any high school across the country.


Allie Dovey was a senior at Grand Valley High School in 2015. She took one AP course her freshman year, one her sophomore year (the second year of the school’s AP for all program), four her junior year. This year she is taking six: AP English literature, AP American government, AP studio art, AP statistics, AP micro- and AP macro-economics.

“AP classes are a lot more strenuous than non-AP,” she said. “It’s harder work, harder material to learn, and more studying than regular classes.”

But she’s glad she took a big load of challenging courses.

“It makes me less nervous about college. Kids I know from here who are in college now say the AP classes are pretty comparable to college classes.” Dovey said she planned to attend Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction to study marketing and graphic design.

Frink agreed that AP has built confidence, which is in stark contrast to the way it used to be. “This gives kids grit and perseverance,” he said. “In the past, we’d send kids off to college with great GPAs and they’d fail out after one semester. They weren’t as prepared as we might have thought. Now, kids who have been in this program walk into their classes at Colorado State University or the U.S. Air Force Academy and say “college classes are easy. I have the study skills.”

Although Dovey only knew a school with AP for all, she remains glad the school offered so many rigorous classes. “The academics are getting a lot better every year,” she said. “AP makes kids want to work harder. Kids study hard to get a qualifying score on the AP tests.”

It’s no coincidence that in its first year of AP for all, Grand Valley High School won the 2013 Governor’s Distinguished Improvement Award for having the highest rate of student growth of any high school in Colorado. The school missed winning the award again in 2014 by the narrowest of margins.

In 2015 Grand Valley High School was one of five schools in the country to receive the Schools of Opportunity Gold Recognition. This national award recognizes schools that are closing the achievement gap, regardless of the students they serve.

Meanwhile, the number of AP exams taken by Grand Valley students continues to climb each year. In 2014, students took 458 exams. In 2015, the total inched up to 479 and in 2016 students took 620 exams.

While the number of students earning qualifying scores remains low, the trends are heading in a positive direction. In 2014, there were 31 qualifying exam scores (three or higher) and in 2015 there were 46. In 2016, there were 81. And the number of the lowest possible scores – a 1 – dropped from 349 in 2014 to 309 in 2015.

Other school indicators are headed in the right direction as well. The school’s average ACT score has increased from 17.7 to 19.2. And in 2015, six Grand Valley students scored 30 or higher on the ACT.

“This has never happened before,” Frink said.

Another positive sign is that more students are challenging themselves with the most rigorous AP classes available. In 2015, 24 of the school’s 61 seniors are taking AP statistics, compared to 19 2014.

“The rigor and expectations are catching on,” McGruder said. “We’re raising the bar and the kids are doing it.”

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