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English students in Karri Landeis' Advanced Placement English class at Century High School are, from front, Caley Stenehjem, Hannah Olson and Clara Derby.

Students in Bismarck and Mandan may soon spend their Saturdays getting extra help from an Advanced Placement guru to prepare for their exams.

If they receive passing scores, not only are they likely to receive college credit — they can even cash a check for $100 or more.

These efforts stem from North Dakota's partnership with the National Math and Science Initiative, which announced this month that the two school districts will benefit from a $20 million federal grant awarded to the organization.

"It will increase opportunities for students to take, participate and succeed in AP courses," said Ann Ellefson, director of academic support for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction.

North Dakota has the lowest percentage of students taking AP exams in the nation. 

The department is accepting applications from school districts interested in implementing NMSI's College Readiness Program for the 2016-17 school year.

The superintendents in Bismarck and Mandan indicated this week that they plan to apply. Because they are also involved in the grant, the districts will be part of a research study along with the eight other school districts from Atlanta to Detroit, Ellefson said.

West Fargo is the only other North Dakota district included in the grant.

What is the College Readiness Program?

DPI is working with NMSI to roll out the nonprofit's programs across the state.

Matthew Randazzo, CEO of NMSI, said the College Readiness Program is the organization's signature service. It's used by 800 schools in 30 states.

The program provides training for teachers. NMSI flies in consultants — experts in AP math, science and English — to host study sessions for students leading up to exam time.

Local AP teachers attend those sessions as well, giving them an opportunity to collaborate, Randazzo said. These teachers, in turn, serve as mentors for other educators in the region.

NMSI funds also pay for new equipment students can use in class.

"It's hard to take AP chemistry and biology, if you don't have the lab materials," Randazzo said.

Students who obtain a score of three or higher on exams receive $100 for each passing mark.

So do AP teachers, for each student who succeeds on a test. Randazzo said it recognizes their hard work.

What does the program mean for Bis-Man?

Teacher payments are the one aspect of the program that gives Bismarck Superintendent Tamara Uselman pause, though she stressed she does not necessarily oppose the idea.

"That's problematic to me because it seems to be saying that only one teacher made the difference," she said. "It seems to offer a reward to one teacher when that child has likely 13 or more grades full of teachers."

She said teachers as far back as preschool and kindergarten help shape students who succeed on the high school tests.

Despite that concern, the district still plans to move forward.

Uselman said it's important to boost the number of graduates prepared for college and careers, which is what NMSI aims to do.

"If we knew how to increase that, we would have already done it," she said.

Bismarck high schools already offer a number of AP classes, which is a rarity in North Dakota.

State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler has made bolstering AP a priority in North Dakota. She wants 25 percent of students to enter college with a semester's worth of credits completed. A $1.25 million allocation from the 2015 Legislature is going toward the effort, in addition to NMSI.

Mandan High School, like many of the state's high schools, does not offer AP courses. The district encourages students to take dual credit classes, in which passing grades earn college credit.

Mandan Superintendent Mike Bitz said the district will continue its dual credit offerings but will likely start one or two AP classes during the 2016-17 school year, prompted by NMSI.

The district used to have AP but stopped its last class three years ago after student interest shifted toward dual credit.

What else is N.D. doing with NMSI?

Other NMSI services separate from the grant and College Readiness Program are taking shape in North Dakota.

NMSI's Laying the Foundation program is providing teachers in grades 3-12 extra training opportunities.

Some teachers from Bismarck and Mandan attended a locally held NMSI sessions this summer.

Uselman said they returned with positive reviews of the organization and a new set of tools to use when teaching.

The state also plans to implement a third NMSI program down the road called UTeach, which provides support for college students studying to become teachers, Ellefson said.

(Reach Amy R. Sisk at 701-250-8267 or amy.sisk@bismarcktribune.com.)

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