This year, the percentage of district seniors who passed at least one AP exam is almost twice the national average.

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Spokane Public Schools has moved to the front of the Advanced Placement class.

When the College Board chose 100 schools to offer “pre-AP” courses to all freshmen, Spokane was the only district in the nation to get all of its comprehensive high schools into the pilot program.

That means a lot, especially to the disadvantaged and to freshmen who aren’t sure whether they have what it takes to succeed in regular AP classes.

Success or failure will be up to the student, but the point is that each will have a chance to excel – and enjoy the experience.

That’s the same philosophy embraced by Ferris High School English teacher Ashley Jones: “All students should have access to the same type of rigor.”

Now a freshman at Ferris, Raegan Laycock believed she wasn’t being pushed hard enough in eighth grade.

“But here, instead of waiting for the class to be over, you don’t want it to end,” Laycock said.

The work was plenty rigorous Thursday morning, as Jones and colleague Katie O’Connor helped 20 students analyze the nuances of English composition.

“We’re building the structure now so they will be able to access more challenging curriculum, so that when they get into 10th or 11th grade, they can say that this isn’t brand-new to them,” said Jones, who was one of 40 Spokane teachers to take part in professional development at the Pre-AP Summer Institute.

However, the program is new to Spokane Public Schools, which was eager to enroll in the pilot program by meeting several requirements: align its instructions to course frameworks provided by the College Board, take part in professional training and offer the course with open access for all.

The reward is that all five of its comprehensive high schools will take part. All five offer pre-AP courses in biology and English, while Rogers and North Central also offer arts.

“It’s a tremendous honor,” said Adam Swinyard, the district’s chief academic officer.

Currently, 350,000 students nationwide have the potential for AP but don’t have access to those college-level courses, according to the College Board.

The goal is for pre-AP to boost that number by requiring schools to offer the courses to all ninth-graders. That would also boost achievement for students from low-income households.

According to a study by the College Board, students who took an AP exam had higher retention rates in college than non-AP students of similar background and ability.

According to the College Board, the move toward pre-AP classes is a reaction to requests from around the country for more pre-AP materials and guidance on how to prepare students for college-level courses.

“The idea is that instead of pushing kids into challenging courses, we’re really trying to give them the tools so they can confidently access those courses on their own,” said Jones, who has taught English at Ferris for 12 years.

The key word is confidence. Freshmen who aren’t already enrolled in an honors-level course may decide against taking an AP course because they might fail.

The pre-AP program offers the rigor without the risk, because by the time they’re upperclassmen, those students will know where they stand.

Even before the pilot program was approved, Spokane was ahead of the curve in Advanced Placement. This year, the percentage of district seniors who passed at least one AP exam is almost twice the national average.

During a recent presentation to the district’s board of directors, Swinyard pointed out that Spokane students living in poverty enjoy AP pass rates that beat the national average for all students.

At Rogers High School, a grant from College Spark Washington – a group that funds programs for low-income students – allowed teachers to make AP English the default course for all juniors.

In the past two years, AP enrollment at Rogers improved by 134 percent. Other high schools have also seen a jump in participation, notably in science (which increased 96 percent districtwide in the last three years).

Of course it’s up to the teachers to guide differently skilled students, “to do your best to meet every kid where they are and move them a little bit,” Jones said.

Jones and her colleagues are on the same page. “Content has shifted to what are the skills they need to be successful,” said Jones, who added that it’s less important to have read a classic book than to be able “to analyze a complex text or write a cohesive argument.”

For freshman Jasmin Suljic, “It’s been a big step. There’s more work, more complex reading and writing, but I like having a bit of a challenge.”