Fenton School District 100 has been named Advanced Placement District of the Year. The small district in Bensenville in Chicago’s western suburbs received the national recognition for expanding access to Advanced Placement courses, or AP, and for improving scores.
More than a third of students are enrolled in at least one of the 24 AP courses offered at Fenton, including English, U.S. History and Biology. The number of students who took AP exams grew from 253 to 330 in three years.
Fenton High School is the only school in District 100 and serves about 1,500 students. Three school districts in the U.S. and Canada receive the recognition each year from the College Board, a nonprofit that handles AP programs. It’s awarded to a large, medium and small district.
Fenton Superintendent James Ongtengco said, a few years ago, the majority of students who enrolled in AP courses came from well-to-do families.
“We were missing students that are the majority of our high school — students of poverty, students of color, students with disabilities,” he said. “We have changed that narrative through hard work, through deliberate changing of minds.”
Kate Ward, a division leader at Fenton, said the school loosened academic restrictions to allow more students to sign up for AP classes.
“It was more about, well, you might have an interest. You might have passion. Or you have to have the grit and the open mindset to really improve yourself,” she said.
She said there was some hesitation. Some worried that by opening up the program, scores would decline.
Trevor Packer, head of the AP program at the College Board, said many school districts will expand access to AP classes.
“They will invite more students in, but the scores will slightly decline. And that’s very normal,” Packer said.
But he said Fenton bucks that trend. He said scores have gone up across racial and ethnic groups. The district is about 62 percent Hispanic and 29 percent white.
Packer said teacher collaboration across grades helped students prepare for the more rigorous courses.
“So that AP English and the upper grades becomes much more feasible because so many students have had a preparatory curriculum in the ninth and 10th grade,” he said.
He said the school also initiated a mentorship program where students identify a staff or faculty member in the building who will hold them accountable to their academic success.
Packer also noted that Fenton is working to remove barriers like the cost of taking an AP exam, which is $94 per test. Fenton is about 50 percent low income. Students who qualify for free and reduced lunch can receive subsidies from the College Board, but still other students may struggle to afford the exam. Fenton has set up a GoFundMe page where residents have contributed to cover those costs.
The Illinois State Board of Education and Gov. JB Pritzker have requested $2 million in state funds to cover a portion of AP exam fees in 2020.
Illinois school districts have won AP District of the Year awards in six of the past nine years. Chicago Public Schools received the award last year and in 2011.