Some Philly teens worry that a lack of AP courses on their high school transcripts will be detrimental to their college chances — and experts say they may be right. (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

For teenagers across the country, Advanced Placement classes are a staple of preparation for the daunting college admissions process. Thirty-eight high schools in the School District of Philadelphia offered these courses in the 2022-23 school year. But what about the 16 that didn’t?  

West Philly resident Nora Garg, 16, has wanted to take AP classes to bolster her resume since before she even started high school, thanks to watching her older sister apply for college. 

“When applying for colleges and stuff, it kind of gives us [a] disadvantage because you don’t have something that a lot of other kids have,” Garg said.

Now a junior at Science Leadership Academy in Center City, which doesn’t offer any APs, Garg is focusing on extra curriculars in hopes of making herself stand out on her own applications. She spends her time learning in a dual enrollment college course, working as a teacher’s assistant at Penn Medicine, and being cofounder of her school’s Students of Color Association.

Several students, including Garg, told Billy Penn that a lack of APs at their schools makes them apprehensive about how they’ll compete in the university admissions process, and worried they’ll be behind in adjusting to the higher ed academic workload.

“Advanced Placement” is a registered trademark of the College Board, a nonprofit organization that administers standardized tests widely used in the American education system, like AP exams and the SATs.

According to the College Board, AP classes are intended to help students stand out to universities and earn credit at U.S. colleges (provided a student scores highly on the exam that comes at the end of the course) thereby saving money on classes. AP classes in high school can also boost a student’s GPA and get them accustomed to college-level learning methods and demands.

In recent years, nationwide surveys have found higher student enrollment at schools (primarily suburban) that have more AP classes, according to a 2021 report from the Center for American Progress.

This story is part of a project with Temple University’s Logan Center for Urban Investigative Reporting examining educational disparities within the Philadelphia School District.

‘Comparable to other districts’

AP classes can provide value beyond an academic or financial advantage, according to Madeline Birkner, senior manager of persistence and college partnerships at the Philadelphia Education Fund, a local nonprofit founded in 1985 to help more Philly high schoolers achieve college and career success. 

Students’ self-confidence and time management skills may also benefit from the AP class experience, Birkner said. 

They’re especially helpful in Philadelphia, where resources or course offerings may be scarce in comparison to other schools, she added. “It’s something that is comparable to kids from other districts. And there’s value to that,” Birkner said. “There’s value to the experience to the students themselves and taking on something that is really challenging.”

From the perspective of an admissions counselor (Birkner previously worked in admissions at Bryn Mawr), seeing an AP class on a transcript points to a students’ classroom achievements and ability to take initiative. 

“It’s a little bit of a cheat code or something, it’s a recognizable brand that can assist the student in gaining admissions to colleges, because they’ve taken a risk that’s recognizable,” according to Birkner.

Terrel Bundy, a senior at SLA Beeber in Wynnefield, another district school that doesn’t offer AP classes, isn’t personally bothered by the lack of those courses on his transcript, but believes the circumstance could make him appear a weaker candidate for post graduation opportunities.

An admissions rep unfamiliar with Philly schools may not recognize the rigorous process needed to get into SLA Beeber or schools like it, he noted.

“The school’s reputation works within Philly, but for students like myself trying to maybe look outside of Philadelphia, it’s going to be a bit harder because I’ve not heard of a college that wants to have an interview or wants to see me and have an admission process as it was to get in SLA,” Bundy said.

It makes sense that some district high schools would opt to prioritize other mediums for learning instead, Birkner said. 

SLA Center City and Beeber are project-based schools, meaning that they prioritize presentations and other student-led projects instead of test taking. Some students, like Bundy, find this type of environment helpful in preparation for the independence they’ll need at college.

Other schools might instead offer International Baccalaureate (IB) classes, another type of pre-university curriculum that’s useful if a student wants to pursue higher education outside the U.S., or other rigorous courses, like engineering programs. AP does not always equal rigor, Birkner said.

A question of resources 

Even schools that do offer AP programming might offer the courses on an inconsistent basis for several reasons, including the availability of teachers.

“Schools evaluate their capacity and ability to offer AP courses based on their school community and in a way that doesn’t take resources from other classes and programs,” Marissa Orbanek, a school district spokesperson, told Billy Penn. 

During the 2022-23 school year, 69% of district high schools offered AP classes (an 8% increase from the previous year), and approximately 5k students were enrolled in them, Orbanek said.

In addition to the cost of hiring teachers, professional development for AP classes costs the district approximately $43,000 and AP exam fees cost roughly $357,000. Most students in the U.S. have to pay $98 to take an AP exam, but in Philadelphia, they’re covered by the district, per Orbanek.

Star Seraphin, a senior at Olney High School, which recently became a district-run public school, is currently enrolled in AP Calculus. Last year, they took and passed the exam for AP Language & Composition. 

The classes have given Seraphin a sense of self-assuredness for handling heavier workloads post-high school. This year they hoped to bolster it with another class — AP Psychology. Instead, Seraphin was only able to take AP Psych for one semester; Olney didn’t offer it for both. (The College Board recommends taking an AP course for the entire academic year.)

“It kind of dampens the confidence a little bit because you’re still getting the content,” Seraphin said. “But like after the class, it’s up to you to memorize it for three months, or until, like, you get your exam.”

While working as Philadelphia Education Fund’s college access program coordinator at Olney, Birkner remembers seeing this pattern. At the time, Olney offered one AP class offered to juniors — U.S. History. When the teacher left, the course did not return during the rest of Birkner’s 7-year tenure at Olney from 2014-2021.

This pattern repeats itself even with non-AP curriculum, Birkner says, noting an honors chemistry class that was unstaffed for an entire academic year. 

The Philadelphia School District hopes to establish a “baseline standard” for courses and programming at all education levels, including high school AP classes, according to spokesperson Orbanek. 

This plan is outlined in Accelerate Philly, the five-year strategic plan introduced by Superintendent Tony Watlington in May. Program improvement falls under the plan’s “Priority 3” section, which highlights goals for academic achievement.

Birkner is hopeful the district’s plan will expand access to the Advanced Placement experience. 

“If they’re making a commitment to offer some of these courses everywhere or making sure that there aren’t blind spots,” Birkner said, “I think that’s definitely a step in the right direction.”