Early on the first day of school this year, history teacher Josh Trexler will urge his 12-year-old silver Prius along tar-and-gravel county roads, packed with lesson plans, new ideas and fresh energy to ramp up his Advanced Placement classes.
He will unload at Jesse Carson High School, in China Grove, North Carolina, where more than half the student population qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch. It's also where, like most schools, AP classes draw ambitious students of all backgrounds seeking the most rigorous classes in the building.
Trexler and 240 other teachers from across North Carolina, and as far as Wisconsin and Massachusetts, completed the Advancement Placement Summer Institute at Davidson College. The college invests in the annual institute–two weeks and 19 courses this year–with a single aim: making teaching and schools better. Davidson sends the teachers back to their hometowns invigorated and skilled in how best to lead learning.
"You get to learn from the people who have actually graded the AP test," Trexler said.
He joined two dozen fellow teachers of AP Human Geography studying how humans interact and change the places they live in, whether they are altering the landscape, music or culture.
All teachers studied the AP methods and protocols behind the curtain for these college-level classes that have been offering a leg up to the college-bound for seven decades.
"A course's subject matter and how that subject matter is taught both have to be front and center in the institute's classes," said Jonathan Milner, a longtime institute instructor in government and politics.
Trexler learned that he needs to push his students straight into the studying, taking tests and writing papers at the start of the year, rather than easing into the college-level work with more of a lecture approach at the beginning.
"Then when they come in to me, we can have a structured discussion about what it means," he said. "It's the difference between telling the information and really teaching it."
Leveling up to AP coursework in high school pays off.
"The biggest advantage for students is getting college credit and saving money and time," said Trexler. "They say, ‘I've earned something already and I'm not even [in college] yet!'"
Having credits in the bag can also add scheduling flexibility over four years. It might even make room for a second major or a minor.
College admission officers and merit scholarship committees often view AP classes as evidence that a student pursued the most demanding offerings his or her school.
Advanced Placement, a program of the College Board, began in the 1950s with courses in English and history. In the beginning, the program targeted elite students already headed for college.
Today, access is broader. There are no recommendations or requisites to sign up for an AP class. And while a handful of elite schools in the Washington, D.C., area recently made headlines with their decision to phase out AP classes, the program remains a gold standard nationwide. And it's still growing: the number of exams taken and the number of scores of three or higher (out of five) are both up by about 70 percent over the last decade.
The summer institutes are keeping pace. This year, programs on 162 college campuses nationwide will benefit more than 40,000 teachers. To get an idea of the ultimate potential, now multiply that number by the number of students they will teach.
That exponential impact fits Davidson, said Clark G. Ross, Frontis W. Johnston Professor of Economics and a longtime national leader in AP institutes, conferences and exam evaluations.
"The institute shows, not just tells of, the college's commitment to secondary school education," said Ross, who founded Davidson's APSI in 2008.
Nationwide, summer institutes range in size from one music class at a small college to thousands of students in dozens of classes at large universities, said Kevin Meade, a College Board APSI director. Meade looks to Davidson's program for everything from exemplary online branding ("Davidson is in the top five percent") to its collaborative spirit with other colleges and universities offering APSIs.
"I look at Davidson," Meade said, "and think, ‘This is what you can do.'"
Davidson's program seeded another AP initiative.
Ross, who teaches the institute's AP economics courses, spearheaded creation of the Davidson Next online EdX course in AP macroeconomics for high school students, drawing on the expertise of economists across the nation. One teacher who used the virtual course with his Chattahoochee High School students in Alpharetta, Georgia, called Ross to report that he had three students in one year make perfect scores on the AP macroeconomics test–a rare event.
Teachers at the Davidson institute this year studied biology, calculus, chemistry, computer science, economics, English language and literature, environmental science, government and politics, history, human geography, physics or statistics in the college's classrooms and labs.
At the end of their week together, APSI teachers leave with their binders bulging and their laptops linked to shared Google drives filled with pooled resources.
And they leave with a shared commitment to continuing the conversation.
Bethany Hanlon of Pine Lake Preparatory in Mooresville, North Carolina, will call on peer support as she focuses her students on writing skills this year.
"With AP writing, it's a lot more about continuity and change over time," she said. Students tackling an essay on the AP world history exam, for instance, have to be able to determine the factors that influence or cause change or continuity, and provide examples of continuity or change.
Brand-new Oak Grove High School in Davidson County, North Carolina, is still under construction, so Adrienne Quigley is teaching her AP English Lit courses online to 11th- and 12th-grade students who won't be able to move into the new building yet. Having a "virtual" AP classroom makes ongoing collaboration and community with her fellow Davidson APSI teachers all the more valuable.
Back in Trexler's classroom in China Grove, at the top of a stairwell festooned with Carson Cougars blue and orange, the ceiling tiles are painted with national flags from last year's Human Geography class.
Trexler started teaching AP classes after he was "volun-told," he said. Now he said he dives in with a passion undergirded by eight years of teaching and amped up by a summer week spent shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow teachers and AP experts.
He's more ready for this year than any other.
"You have to expect more of the students," he said, "from day one."