Marvin Ordonez downed a potion of sweetened lettuce water to calm his nerves before taking the Advanced Placement exam in Spanish literature. Teacher Randy Vail plies his students with potassium-rich bananas to ward off hand cramps during the three-hour AP English exam. Grace Lee prays.
If this all sounds a bit much, consider the results.
Around the country, the majority of college-bound seniors suffer through one, maybe two, Advanced Placement tests, an academic ordeal endured partly for the intellectual thrill and partly for the potential reward of college credit. But walk the halls of North Hollywood High School and you'll find not only Ordonez and Lee but 16-year-old Takako Mukai, who has passed nine AP tests . . . so far. She's taking five more in May.
Here at the home of Los Angeles Unified's magnet program for "highly gifted" high schoolers--those with IQs below 145 need not apply--AP fervor runs at a higher pitch than at any other public high school in the nation.
Last May, 410 North Hollywood students--from both the magnet and the regular campus that houses the gifted program--took 1,077 AP exams in 24 subjects. Nineteen of those students scored at least a 4 (3 is passing, 5 is tops) on eight or more exams, earning the moniker of National AP Scholar. North Hollywood thus produced 2% of the national total of such scholars, each of whom have chalked up enough credit to conceivably skip the first two years of college.
North Hollywood High also produced the second- and third-highest scoring scholars in the country. And five of the 19 scholars, including Mukai, earned the distinction as juniors.
"That's a fantastic achievement," said Wade Curry of the College Board, the national nonprofit association that administers the AP program.
Of the 11,000 high schools nationwide that gave AP exams last May, only one had more AP scholars (21) than North Hollywood--Harvard-Westlake, the tony private school in the foothills of Studio City.
But that's the sort of place that dropped $13 million on a state-of-the-art science building last year. At North Hollywood, the idea of a novel laboratory is an overgrown garden where the horticulture club tends sunflowers and the AP English students roam about seeking inspiration for their poetry.
In Curry's view, the fact that most of North Hollywood's Advanced Placement scholars are certified geniuses doesn't dilute the school's accomplishment. Other schools with heavy concentrations of brainy kids fared far less well. New York City's famed Stuyvesant High, one of the country's most selective public high schools, had three national scholars this year.
Curry praised North Hollywood's diversity, too, noting that its scholars included the nation's highest-scoring black and Latino students.
On a nondescript stretch of Magnolia Boulevard, the grubby campus is jammed with almost 3,500 bodies, requiring students to share banged-up lockers and squeeze 36 or more to a classroom. Many teachers lack permanent rooms and juggle schedules to accommodate the crushing enrollment.
"This is not a country club," said college counselor Susan Bonoff. "This is a very traditional urban high school. Our kids are not getting their education on a silver platter."
Yet North Hollywood has offered a high-powered curriculum for decades, part of the reason officials chose it eight years ago as the site of the district's only high school magnet program exclusively for the highly gifted. Bonoff and others attribute the school's success on the exams in part to the faculty's dedication to providing the courses and ensuring that the exams go smoothly. But the intangible factor is how the exceptionally intelligent teenagers have turned the opportunity into an academic feeding frenzy.
Advanced Placement courses have long been recognized as one of the perks of a high school education that give a fortunate few a leg up. But they also mean more work for a school--teachers with special skills and knowledge.
The program, developed by the College Board about 40 years ago, offers a college-level curriculum and teacher training to high schools. Most courses last a year and culminate in a two- or three-hour exam. A score of 3 or above will qualify a student for credit at most colleges and universities.
The notion that only affluent schools can succeed with such classes was exploded in 1982 by Jaime Escalante, the charismatic former Garfield High School math teacher who encouraged a group of academically undistinguished students at that Eastside school to "stand and deliver" on the AP calculus test.
Even so, the average high school, according to the College Board, today offers only about six out of the 29 AP courses. Just this fall, the Tomas Rivera Institute, a Claremont-based research center, complained that predominately black and Latino schools in California still offer fewer AP courses than those in affluent neighborhoods with more white students.
Harvard-Westlake, for instance, led the nation in AP Scholars in part because it offers 28 AP courses.
North Hollywood, with an 80% minority enrollment, is exceptional for a public school, offering 20 such classes. Its catalog includes two years of AP English, two years of AP calculus and atypical courses such as AP music theory and AP art history.
The number of students taking the courses has almost doubled over the last three years. And the rapacity for the demanding course work is not limited to the magnet, which has only 244 students. Of the 400-plus exam-takers this year, three-quarters were from the regular school.
One way North Hollywood has encouraged broad participation is by making a special effort to draft native Spanish speakers into the AP Spanish language and literature courses, as a starting point. Many of those students have gone on to take other AP classes and some have been buoyed by the experience to consider college for the first time.
Among them was Ordonez, the lettuce-juice guzzler. He believes the brew must have helped because he got 5s on both Spanish exams--and also passed his driving test right after one exam. Now, he's applying to several universities and dreams of law school.
"Taking the tests gave me the confidence that I could do it," he said.
At some schools, the economics of the AP exams puts them out of reach of many students. Each comes with a $70 application fee.
At North Hollywood, school officials try to defray the cost for needy students with private donations and school funds. "We don't want anyone to not take the test because of money," Bonoff said.
The exams are worth the investment. Because of grade inflation, colleges weigh performance on AP tests more heavily today than they did a few decades ago.
"A place like Stanford could easily fill its freshman class with people who never had a B," said the College Board's Curry, who noted that more than 40% of students who take the Scholastic Assessment Test--the most widely used gauge of college readiness--graduate high school with an A average. So college admissions officers "have to spend a lot more time looking at the program students took."
Although far from the only factor, the presence of multiple Advanced Placement classes on a transcript helps ensure serious consideration of a college application. Studies have shown that students who complete the accelerated courses achieve at least a B average as college freshmen and that 41% graduate with honors, well above the rate of non-AP students. Researchers believe this is because AP classes increase students' academic orientation and motivation.
These students also are more likely to finish college and are twice as likely to proceed to graduate school, the College Board has found.
Parents view the ability to earn college credit in high school as no small incentive in an era of escalating tuitions. Bonoff said one North Hollywood student used his stockpile of AP credits to graduate a year early, shaving $29,000 off his Stanford University bill.
Though the 985 AP Scholars nationwide this year could theoretically start college as juniors, not everyone leaps at that opportunity.
Grace Kwak, a North Hollywood High magnet graduate from the Class of 1995, holds the record for high scores, having aced 16 exams with 5s. Harvard University offered to let her start classes there as a sophomore. But Kwak, who is fluent in five languages, including sign language, declined.
"I don't want to miss out on a year of Harvard," the applied math major said during an interview from her Cambridge, Mass., dorm room.
Still, scholastic power has its privileges. Kwak used her AP credits to catapult over fellow freshmen into multi-variable calculus, accelerated chemistry and upper-division French.
Her feat, while embarrassing to the soft-spoken Kwak, is the stuff of legend around North Hollywood High. Most magnet students tackle three or four AP courses at a time, although some buck the advice of counselors and take only one or two.
"It just rushes students so much," moaned a gifted 10th-grader who, with two AP courses this year, is a slacker by North Hollywood standards.
Then there are those like Mukai, who gobble AP courses like Mars bars. Since the eighth grade, the Sherman Oaks teenager has whipped through AP chemistry, European history, English language, U.S. history, biology and the lower and upper levels of both AP physics and calculus. This year she's taking AP English literature, government, economics, statistics and studio art.
Why does she do it?
"I want to go to med school. So I take AP courses for practical purposes"--to impress prospective colleges. But with a passion for writing short stories and for fashions that run to padlocks on neck chains, she--like most of North Hollywood's AP slaves--is "far from your typical nerd," she notes.
There was one AP student whose hobby was pencil-twirling. Another would set out on 30-mile walks in random directions--then call his parents for a ride home.
But such quirkiness can be evidence of an individuality that enables many of the scholars to, in effect, teach themselves. They occasionally will take an AP exam without having had a formal class in the subject.
"I don't really need a teacher," said George Lee, 17, who plays on the school tennis team while adding six AP courses this year to the nine he has finished.
Grace Lee, 14, the student who whispers a prayer before AP ordeals, says she and her high-IQ classmates prefer to help each other learn before asking for help. Teachers, she says, "are like the last resort."
Teachers acknowledge that the best thing to do sometimes is just get out of the way. "These kids are so bright, I find it scary sometimes," said English teacher Maie Dell Rose, who leads two AP classes.
Some teachers find that unconventional approaches help keep high-voltage students engaged.
On a cool November morning, Vail, the banana-packing English instructor, sent his AP students into the garden outside his classroom. The assignment, inspired by Emerson, was to observe nature and create a "word picture" on a 3-by-5-inch index card.
Among those plunging in was 11th-grader Michael Shulman, who spent several minutes contemplating a clump of sod near a gnarly oak, then poured out vivid images--of "waves of sound" and small green sprouts that "grow and spread like plankton."
Shulman says he steeps himself in AP courses like this one purely for the intellectual excitement.
"If people here brag about anything, it's what they got on their AP tests," said the gifted teenager, who doesn't know his IQ but can rattle off his five AP scores. "I need the challenge. I take them to prove that I can do it."
The AP frenzy does bring added pressure, though.
Counselor Bonoff recalls how she once neglected to order an exam for a student. When he found out, he collapsed to the ground in distress.
Bonoff frantically called nearby schools and found one that had an extra test. Then she drove the youth--who was hyperventilating all the way--to the other school.
"He got a 5," she said.