Child scholars advance to college work early
Arizona Daily Star
November  3, 2008



By Rhonda Bodfield

Tucson, Arizona | Published:

In a quiet West Side neighborhood at a small school that you've probably never heard of, preschool students are learning Chinese.

By the end of kindergarten, most students at Accelerated Learning Laboratory can read, do division and recite the capitals of each state.

By the end of middle school, many will be finished with college algebra and poised to begin calculus.

There's a 10-year-old sitting in a college-level psychology course, where a recent unannounced visit found students discussing the concept of "fluid intelligence" and "working memory" and whether memory is an indication of intelligence.

And last year, about 10 students, including some seventh-graders, were wedged in with adults at Pima Community College West in an English 101 class.

So perhaps it isn't so surprising that one of the eighth-graders there is the only student in the state this year to earn the designation of AP Scholar (for Advanced Placement) before entering high school. It's an honor that goes to students who have completed college-level coursework and passed at least three Advanced Placement examinations with a sufficiently high score.

David "Storm" Dotson, who turned 13 in May, passed AP calculus, physics and biology last academic year.

It was a lot of work, he acknowledged, with most nights requiring two to seven hours of homework.

Dotson, who has attended the school at 5245 N. Camino de Oeste since the second grade, said that, while he's proud of his accomplishment, it's just a beginning. This year, he's taking five AP courses: statistics, U.S. history, psychology, studio art and English composition.

"I feel like school's an opportunity," he said. "You can accomplish a lot here if you want to work hard at it."

He's in good company. There are 17 students at the school now taking the whole series, including a girl who also just turned 13.

The charter school, which got its start in 1999, is based on the premise that students, regardless of income, ethnicity or gender, can perform at gifted levels if exposed to the right curriculum and educational practices.

There are a few differences observers would note right away.

Students address teachers by their first names.

You don't pop into a classroom and see the apathetic students slumped in the back, dozing off or having sidebar discussions. Here, seemingly to a student, they're engaged in what they're doing.

There's also a wide range of ages and grade levels in any given class. School officials don't believe that students grow at a homogenous pace, so they're generally grouped instead by academic and social characteristics. In this year's crop of AP calculus students, for example, there are three seventh-graders, four freshmen and three sophomores.

While the atmosphere is congenial, there are no organized competitive athletic programs and school policies are strict. Officials demand near-perfect attendance, on-time behavior, zero profanity and homework five nights a week. The handbook strongly encourages parents to get out of their cars and walk into the building to get their children at the end of the day, to show the importance of education.

As a public school with roughly 250 students, the laboratory isn't allowed to be selective about whom it takes. Administrators say they picked the West Side campus intentionally because it isn't a challenge to produce excelling students raised in areas of privilege.

But what school officials can do is warn incoming students coming from more mainstream schools that while a strong work ethic can compensate, they'll likely be far behind. That, and the fact the school relies largely on word of mouth, explains why there are so few students in the high school that the students' AIMS scores can't be publicly released because they'd be considered personally identifiable information.

School administrator David Jones predicts student performance will soar even higher as the school grows its own crop of students who have been raised in the school culture.

Trey Todnem, a ninth-grader last year and another AP scholar at the school, passed four AP exams last academic year, getting a 5 the highest possible score in three of the subjects, including physics. Out of 26,314 students nationwide who took that particular exam in 2007, 82 percent of them were seniors, not freshmen, and fewer than 6,900 received such a high score.

Todnem, 15, has a goal to pass every AP exam he can before he graduates from high school. Asked if he studies all the time, he smiled and said he did. "It's not so bad. After a while, you get used to it," he said.

A third student, Timothy Miles, also was named an AP Scholar after passing four AP exams as a ninth-grader.

The pacing is not without controversy.

The College Board, a nonprofit that runs the AP program, discourages schools from offering the courses and exams to middle-schoolers.

Board spokeswoman Jennifer Topiel said college officials expect the AP program to be a "capstone" experience for high school.

And while Topiel said the laboratory may well be a school with advanced academics and able students, not all colleges will grant credit for AP courses taken prior to ninth grade due to concerns about the rigor of instruction and whether students are mature enough to truly master the content.

The University of Arizona, for example, only accepts AP credits from high school. Dave Irwin, a spokesman for Pima Community College, acknowledged the students took the English course and passed, but other than to say they were "unusually young," declined to say how their presence might have changed the tone of the class.

Jones said he understands the reticence. "Anything new and different is suspect," he said. "And we've had experience with adults who want their children to perform, so they push and it burns the students out. This is not that kind of a system. The more excited students are about learning, the harder they will push themselves and the more enjoyable it will be."

Jones acknowledged that he tried to discourage this year's group of students from the heavy courseload, but in the end, he decided to respect their choices. The school, he said, "is just taking down any artificial ceilings" to learning.

Kristi Polanco, 35, has two children at the school including a 4-year-old who sings to her in Chinese.

Her goal is to get them into Ivy League colleges.

"Learning is a survival skill," she said. "It's amazing, but it seems like our culture doesn't believe in being educated and smart anymore. It's like we're actually regressing," she said.

"Giving children the gift of learning at a young age will help them be highly functional, well-educated adults who can reach their full potential."

Bonny Harris, a 38-year-old homemaker, has three children at the school. She's heard criticism, she said, that high-achieving schools like this turn children into zombies. Then she nodded over to her children, dashing madly around the courtyard after school with clusters of friends.

Harris found the school three years ago, convinced that her oldest, now 11, wasn't being challenged in a traditional public school. "My feeling was that they were teaching to the lowest level in the class," she said.

Numerous times since, she's realized she made the right choice.

There was the time her first-grader brought home pre-algebra math. And then showed her how to do it.

Her kindergartner, she said, recently learned human anatomy and now reports that she hurt her patella, or thinks she might have broken her clavicle.

Her kids weren't happy with her when she couldn't referee a dispute one night about whether the moon was a waxing crescent or a waning gibbous.

"I thought I was a well-educated mom," she joked, "but my excuse these days is that I didn't go to A.L.L."

● Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at 806-7754 or at