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PHS again makes Newsweek Top 500

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Photo by Tamie Meck Paonia High School students learn solar panel installation during a photovoltaic class at Solar Energy International last fall. Delta County School District high schools are collaborating on programs to diversify student learning oppor

For the second time in three years, Paonia High School made the list of Newsweek Magazine's Top 500 high schools in America for low-income students. For the 2015-2016 school year Paonia was ranked 435th for the 2015-2016 school year; for the 2014-2015 school year PHS was ranked 449th.

The nationwide recognition program ranks schools on college readiness, graduation rate, percentage of college-bound students and the poverty level. According to Newsweek, rankings are based on objective measurements gathered by an analytics firm. Newsweek announces the annual list in August.

Randal Palmer has been principal at PHS since 2011. The school couldn't have made the list and enjoyed the success it has without the special programs it offers, said Palmer. And while he could credit programs and high test scores, "Actually, it just boils down to people."

One of those programs is Advancement Via Individual Determination, a nation-wide college readiness program dedicated to closing the achievement gap by preparing students for college and postsecondary opportunities. It provides research-based strategies and curriculum to participating schools. "Teachers made that happen," said Palmer.

Palmer said he doesn't know exactly what measurements Newsweek used, but the success at PHS couldn't happen without the support of the Delta County School District. "These programs are a district-wide collaboration," said Palmer. "All of this is happening across the district. We just happened to hit the right metrics at the right time."

One program driving that success, said Palmer, is the Advanced Placement, or AP Program. PHS is entering its fifth year in the program, which gives students opportunities to take college-level courses, earn college credits, and even earn an Associate's degree by the time they graduate. "It is really something that has changed our culture here," said Palmer.

The Colorado Education Initiative's Colorado Legacy Schools project launched the program in 2011. CEI is a nonprofit organization that collaborates with the Colorado Department of Education, schools and districts across the state to accelerate student achievement. The 20-year-old program emulates the National Math and Science Initiative that seeks to transform education by replicating successful academic programs across the country.

The initiative supports high schools across the state in creating diversity in educational opportunities, helping students succeed and increasing the number of students seeking careers in the STEM -- Science, Technology, Engineering and Math fields.

This year, 47 Colorado schools are offering AP courses, said Greg Hessee, director of Colorado Legacy Schools for CEI. The program's goal is simple, said Hessee: To increase the number of kids taking AP courses and to provide the support schools need to make that happen.

Professional development is a big piece of that success, said Hessee. Teachers commit to 100 hours of training annually and pull together to pool resources.

To get the program started, said Palmer, teachers were asked to commit to a summer training program. They agreed, and without additional pay, said Palmer. "That's a huge testament to the teachers, who are doing this not to get a bigger paycheck, but because they have a passion for learning," said Palmer. "It's also a compliment to the students."

In order to have enough students in the program, Paonia and Cedaredge high schools partnered on the application. Hessee said former PHS assistant principal Lindsay Prendergast created the platform that would allow the schools to work together. Hessee said he was puzzled when he saw two schools on the application, but once Prendergast explained how it works, he supported it.

As part of its Advanced Placement Initiative, CIE offered grants to schools transitioning into the AP program. Paonia and Cedaredge both received a transition grant and began offering AP classes in 2012.

The schools needed the video-conferencing technology that would allow them to exchange information and teach classes live at both schools, said Hessee. While technology systems can be expensive, the Colorado Governor's Office of Information Technology helped them save money by creating a low-cost system to suit their needs, said Hessee.

PHS now offer 10 AP classes. "That may not seem like much, but for a school of 150 students to offer 10 AP classes is just unheard of," said Hessee.

What Delta County has in place, said Hessee, will allow schools to leverage network technology to provide classes district-wide, share teachers, and increase opportunities for students. Because the schools and the district are finding innovative ways to share resources and increase interest in AP courses, Delta County is leading the way on this initiative, said Hessee. He calls it a "phenomenon." Other schools want to visit Delta County to see how they're making it work. This December they will be able to do that. Delta County is on CIE's "Seeing is Believing" tour, which takes place in December.

"It's helping to close the achievement gap," said Palmer. At PHS more than half of students taking AP classes received a qualifying score in the 2015-2016 school year. The courses are tough, but by offering them the district is leveling the playing field with the big urban schools in competing for admission to more prestigious colleges, universities and Ivy League schools. Student scores also make it possible to compare PHS student achievement to those bigger urban schools.

All of the district's schools now offer AP courses. Paonia began partnering last year with Hotchkiss High School to offer AP classes. Hotchkiss is transitioning into the program without the benefit of a grant, noted Hessee, and they're succeeding.

"I think it's been very positive so far," said HHS principal Paul Rodriguez. He credits the success to the sharing of resources, including teachers. For example, he said, Paonia students attend AP physics class at Hotchkiss, and HHS students take biology at PHS.

Rodriguez calls AP "...a powerful program that has opened opportunities and gives clear guidelines for kids wanting to enter a four-year college or university."

Paonia's CIE grant is ending this year, said Hessee. The school now has the opportunity and the resources to expand the program and customize it to fit their needs. Palmer said that beginning next year, PHS will begin offering more AP courses on campus. "That is key to the success of the program," said Palmer.

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