When it comes to acing Advanced Placement exams, students and teachers at Southwest Miami Senior High School say it’s not about cramming for the test. Instead, they chalk up their success to the school’s supportive environment.
And they should know. Southwest Miami High was one of only four schools in the country to have five or more students get a perfect score on an AP exam last Spring.
Four Southwest High students aced the AP Spanish Language and Culture exam and a fifth got perfect marks in AP Capstone Research, a course that requires students to conduct their own scientific study. Nationwide, only four other schools had equally impressive AP results, and they were either magnet or affluent schools demographically different from Southwest High, which is home to a large population of immigrants from Latin America.
“Honestly, it boils down to the teachers and the kids themselves,” said principal Carlos Diaz. “They inspire each other and the teachers are that guiding force. Believe it or not, they nurture them.”
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Southwest High is located in Miami-Dade’s Olympia Heights neighborhood, and nearly 80 percent of the school’s 2,900 students are low-income. Students and staff describe the school as a “hidden gem” and a “family” and attribute the students’ success to a combination of high standards and encouragement.
It’s a culture of caring and of rigor, too.
Carolyn Rosa, AP Capstone Research teacher
“It’s a culture of caring and of rigor, too,” said Carolyn Rosa, who teaches AP Capstone Research.
Sabrina Macias, 17, said her perfect score in the AP research course was the result of “all the support I had around me” and of her drive to prepare for college-level research courses. Sabrina studied the correlation between academic stress and non-medical prescription drug use in high school students and plans to study neuroscience in college.
“It was really difficult, but it was the most essential class I’ve ever taken,” she said.
The students who aced the AP Spanish exam also credited their success to a desire to celebrate their heritage.
“The motivation is to show people around the country that you can have both cultures at the same time,” said Johan Morales, 19, whose family is Colombian.
Yen Yi, 16, Beatriz Oliva, 17, and Edgar Ferreiro, 17, the other students with perfect AP Spanish scores, come from Cuban families.
“I’m planning to go out of state [for college] and I do want to show my roots. I don’t want to leave that behind,” said Beatriz. “Speaking Spanish and being bilingual is not at all a disability. It’s something that a lot of people don’t have.”
AP Spanish teacher Alina Gonzalez said she emphasizes the students’ personal connection to the language in order to keep them engaged. “They can relate every topic to their lives,” she said. “Once you have a topic with no relationship to you, it becomes senseless.”
Gonzalez and the school’s other AP Spanish teacher, Jorge De Leon, said that although many of the students hear Spanish at home, achieving the level of mastery necessary to pass the AP exam is no easy feat. De Leon said he and Gonzalez are “extremely rigorous” in their classes but “don’t teach to the test.”
At Southwest High, preparation to take advanced courses starts in ninth grade, when students with academic potential are encouraged to enter the high school’s Honors program. School counselors visit classes to encourage students to take rigorous courses, and administrators ask teachers to recommend students who they feel are able to take on the challenge.
The school’s pass rate on AP exams has gone up from 46 to 55 percent of AP students in recent years, according to Diaz.
In Miami-Dade, a total of 16 students got perfect scores on their AP exams, including John Mistele of Ransom Everglades School, who was one of 11 students worldwide to earn a perfect score on the AP Calculus BC exam. Statewide, 48 students aced their AP exams.