WHEELING - High school students in the Ohio Valley are entering a new direction of higher education preparation by being able to earn enough college credit to potentially enter college as a second-semester sophomore.
By taking Advanced Placement classes and courses at local colleges, area school principals say more students are entering college with plenty of credits already under their belts.
This means students have the option of graduating early from college, potentially saving families thousands of dollars in tuition and housing costs.
Wheeling Central Catholic High School student Sarah Henry participates in an AP Calculus class.
Wheeling Central Catholic High School Principal Julie Shively said between AP courses and college classes, a student at Central can potentially graduate with 18 college credit hours. She said 23 percent of Central's students are enrolled in either the high school's AP courses or college classes at West Virginia Northern Community College or Wheeling Jesuit University.
"It's a challenge and these are the kids that want that challenge," Shively said. "It's also economically feasible. It's $85 for an AP course and you can get 12 credits anywhere in the United States. You can't beat that price. Kids going down to WVU, they start as a sophomore and they get all these perks. You get a bump up in housing and more choices in electives. These are kids that are looking long-term."
Central's push for academic excellence is paying off, as was viewed during this month's Ohio County Math Field Day. Wheeling Central students grabbed a majority of the top spots from their rivals at Wheeling Park High School.
The College Board Advanced Placement is a nationwide program that allows high school students to take college-level courses in order to obtain college credit before graduating high school. Students who score a "3" "4" or "5" on an AP exam can potentially earn varying amounts of college credit before stepping foot on a campus.
It is Central's second year offering AP courses, including calculus, chemistry and American history, and Shively said she saw an increase in the school's 2011-2012 ACT scores since the introduction of the program. The school's average on every ACT subject increased by one point, she said, and the school's scores on ACT math and science jumped by two points.
Wheeling Park High School Principal Amy Minch said students at Park have several options to gain college credit including taking AP classes, College at Park, dual credit classes or EDGE classes for students going into the technical field. Minch said she has seen students graduate with more than 30 hours of college credit through these venues.
She said these classes mostly cover credit for entry-level college classes that most students would normally take their freshman year.
"It doesn't matter what field they're going into, classes such as English 101 or 102 or history, they're going to be taking these classes. It's a good start for kids, even if you want to start slow and just take one class, that gives you six hours of credit. It also helps them get used to what the college rigor is like," Minch said.
Minch also stressed that a student with college credit from high school can free up their college course schedule to pursue a double major and additional minors and certifications.
"They get kind of a jump start," she said. "The more they have when you walk out of those college doors, the more employable they're going to be. It frees up having to take additional classes that will allow them to market themselves even better."
Last year, 79 percent of the AP tests given at WPHS had a score of "3" or above, exceeding the state scores of 44 percent and 61 percent globally.
John Marshall High School also has graduated several students with around 30 college credits, according to Michael Berner, assistant principal. He said there are about 170 students enrolled in the school's 11 AP courses this academic year and about 65 students are taking dual credit courses through WLU, Bethany College or West Virginia University.
Berner said one John Marshall student is enrolled in WLU's Advanced Academy, which allows a student to remain enrolled in high school, but is a full-time student at WLU taking college courses.
Chad Barnett, headmaster of The Linsly School, said Linsly takes a different approach to preparing students for a college education. Although Linsly offers more than a dozen AP courses with the potential of earning college credit, Barnett said he believes a thorough education takes time and most students need a full four years of high school as well as college to mature.
"It's not just about content, it's about maturity," Barnett said. "We are concerned because many students drop out after their first year of undergraduate school. How can a student graduate college in three years if they can't pass one? Our approach is to provide a robust education in high school, so students are completely prepared for undergraduate school."
Barnett said he believes scoring well on AP tests is the best path toward gaining college credit as well, since many undergraduate institutions outside the state do not accept credit from local colleges, but most schools accept credit based on AP test scores.
"We know the AP program is the best path toward the possibility of earning college credit," he said. "We value the AP program and we value our instructors, who are very talented teachers. They are very aware of AP and state standards and often go beyond those standards. We believe that taking an AP class is valuable, but having success on the AP test is what matters the most."