In California, With High AP Scores Comes High Pressure

Intensity is commonplace at the open enrollment high school that dominates in math and science.

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Mission San Jose High School is located at the base of the Golden Hills in Fremont, Calif.

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For administrators at Mission San Jose High School, the challenge isn't about encouraging kids to enroll in AP math and science courses. It's getting them to take anything else. 

"Math and science has always been a strength at our school," says the school's principal, Sandy Prairie. "What we're trying to do is create balance." 

The public high school in Fremont, Calif., enrolls about 2,200 students, more than 80 percent of whom are of Asian or Indian descent. A longtime achiever in Advanced Placement education, MSJ offers about 10 AP courses in STEM subjects and places first among open enrollment schools in U.S. News's new rankings of Best High Schools for Math and Science

[Read about the rankings methodology for the Best High Schools for Math and Science.]

In May 2010, 323 of 510 seniors took at least one AP test. Of AP participants in all grades, 89 percent scored at least a 3—the universal bar for success and, often, college credit. 

That its students come out in droves for—and excel in—AP math and science courses is largely credited to a work ethic passed on from their parents, many of whom, MSJ administrators say, are math and science whizzes who hail from overseas and from a more objective educational experience. 

"Their belief is high school success is getting into a highly rigorous college, and the conduit for that is math and science," Prairie says. Try as she might to convince parents that other subjects, like arts and humanities, can also help students get into a good university, they often favor clear assessments that can be demonstrated by a test score. "We keep telling them that's not the way it is here, [but] it's not in their realm of understanding." 

For Mission students, pressure to perform in these subjects started early. "Most parents let you have fun till about sixth [grade]," says junior Nihar Parikh. (Other students say an intense academic focus can start even earlier.) 

[Get tips to avoid being an overly involved parent.]

SAT prep courses can begin as early as middle school, says freshman Angela Gu. (Instead, her junior high curriculum included AP Calculus.) The intensity amps up in high school, prime time to get AP courses under one's belt and showcase technical knowledge thought to be desirable by exclusive colleges. 

Mission High School is clearly seen as a transport vehicle to those schools. Of the two college visit sign-up sheets in the school's career center in mid-September, a list of hopeful Case Western Reserve University applicants was nearly full; no student had yet signed up for a visit with San Diego State University. Ads in the school newspaper display lists of students who are now attending top colleges like UC—Berkeley, Dartmouth College, and Harvard University

"They come with the raw material, but like anything else, you create the raw material into what it becomes," Praire says. "How do you channel that to getting 5's on their AP tests? That they don't do on their own." 

Course registration is up to the students, though MSJ administrators have tried to encourage students to make their courseloads manageable, pursue subjects they're passionate about—Mission also offers a variety of Advanced Placement humanities and arts courses—and make time for friends, exercise, and even sleep. 

The school recently instituted a new time sheet, a requirement for both students and parents to work on each registration season. For each course for which a student registers, he or she must map out an estimated after-school work load onto a weekly time grid. The student and his or her parents must all sign off the finished weekly schedule. 

The hope is that students and parents will be cognizant of course loads that are too demanding, but the idea is far from a quick fix to pressures that have deep cultural roots. For one thing, the schedule allows for an amount of nightly sleep that students say is laughable to a population that catches about five hours, on average.

"It had a requirement of nine hours of sleeping," says Andrew Han, a standout student who has already helped to design an iPhone application that streamlines the school district's website. "I was like, 'Ha, good joke.'"