Joseph Vanasco, AP Chemistry teacher, shows his students food dye...

Joseph Vanasco, AP Chemistry teacher, shows his students food dye in a glass with rubbing alcohol and one with water to show how the alcohol mixture does not totally dissolve in his class at Walter G. O'Connell Copiague high school. (Feb.8, 2012) Credit: Karen Wiles Stabile

Copiague was named Wednesday as one of the nation's top three school districts in promoting college-level achievement among ethnically and racially diverse high school students.

The national award of Advanced Placement District of the Year for Copiague and its Walter G. O'Connell Copiague High School was announced in an annual report released by the Manhattan-based College Board. The nonprofit agency sponsors Advanced Placement course curricula and exams, which are at a college level.

Copiague's award was in the small-district category. Other systems honored are Polk County Public Schools in Florida, in the large-district category, and Val Verde Unified School District in Southern California, in the intermediate category.

The awards recognize districts that broaden their pool of students taking college-level Advanced Placement courses, while also increasing the percentages of students earning exam scores high enough to qualify for college credit.

"It's a lot more work, but it's worth it," said Gregory Lane, 17, a Copiague senior. He's already completed three advanced courses, earning the status of AP scholar with honors in the process, and is taking three more such courses this year.

The College Board, in its annual "AP Report to the Nation," also announced that New York State has the second-highest rate of public high school graduates who scored 3 or higher -- out of a possible 5 -- on AP exams. More than 26 percent of New York's public high school graduates in the Class of 2011 hit those marks, far exceeding the national average of 18.1 percent, the board said.

Exams are scored on a scale of 1 to 5 and colleges generally grant academic credit for scores of at least 3 or 4.

Other states increasingly rival New York, which used to hold the nation's top spot. Maryland now ranks first in graduates scoring 3 or better, with 27.9 percent, and Massachusetts is closing fast, with 25.5 percent.

In Copiague, the number of students taking AP tests jumped from 140 in the 2008-09 school year to 185 in 2010-11, and is due to rise again this spring to 212, according to school officials there. College Board officials plan to visit the O'Connell school for a formal awards presentation next month.

"It's really incredible what they've done there," said Trevor Packer, senior vice president of the national AP program.

Walter G. O'Connell Copiague High School is one of the most diverse schools on Long Island. Of its 1,480 students, about 40 percent are Hispanic, 35 percent black and 20 percent white. Families in the community include substantial numbers of immigrants from the Dominican Republic and Poland.

More than 40 percent of students there qualify for subsidized lunches because of modest family incomes.

Stewart Pena, 14, a junior, said he signed up for AP courses to challenge himself, and also with the hope of qualifying for more college financial aid. Pena explained that his family is still struggling, after arriving in the United States three years ago from the Dominican Republic.

"My parents always told me I needed to get my own scholarships," said Pena, who has three younger siblings.

Principal Jeanette Altruda credits teachers of AP courses for her school's success. The educators often put in extra hours to help teens prep for exams -- including early-morning sessions at the school and Saturday get-togethers at local pizza shops.

"The kids sort of expect it at this point," said Michelle Pennyy, who teaches AP economics and government.

Superintendent Charles Leunig said the district has made a concerted effort to encourage students to think about college preparation at an early age. Last month, the district brought in college representatives and local alumni to talk to secondary students. Elementary students, meanwhile, were all given T-shirts that bore the words, "Who's going to college? I am."

"By the time kids get to high school, they're going to have that message drilled into them," Leunig said.

State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr., weighing in on the board's report, said in a statement, "The Regents' top priority is to ensure that New York's students are ready for college and careers. So it's encouraging to see that more students -- particularly minority and low-income students -- are participating and succeeding in Advanced Placement courses. But there is still much more work to do to improve student access, equity and performance in AP courses and on AP exams."

COPIAGUE'S ACHIEVEMENTS

In the past three years, the Copiague school district has:

RAISED PARTICIPATION. Increased student participation in Advanced Placement courses and tests from 140 students to 185 students.

IMPROVED SCORES. Increased the percentage of students earning AP test scores of 3 (college credit) or higher from 40 percent to 54 percent.

HELPED MINORITIES. Increased the percentage of "traditionally underserved" minority students earning scores of 3 or higher from 31 percent to 50 percent.

TOP ADVANCED PLACEMENT STATES

Percentage of 2011 public high-school graduates scoring 3 or higher on at least one AP examMaryland 27.9 percent

New York 26.5 percent

Virginia 25.6 percent

Massachusetts 25.5 percent

Connecticut 25.3 percent

U.S. average 18.1 percent

SOURCE: College Board

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