What’s behind Leon County’s physics surge?

This year’s 70% increase in physics enrollment in Leon County’s high schools is a remarkable story.  There is no single factor that is entirely responsible for this phenomenon.  Instead, the surge seems to be the result of a combination of ingredients that doesn’t occur very often.  And it’s likely that some of those ingredients are very difficult to pin down.

But here is my attempt at piecing together the recipe for the secret sauce that drove Leon County’s remarkable surge in high school physics enrollment this year:

The main ingredient – the teachers:  We often talk about the importance of teachers’ content knowledge, and it’s certainly important for teachers to have a deep understanding of the subject if students are to construct their own deep understanding.  But students have to want to be in these teachers’ classes – that is, the teachers must have a certain charisma to attract students to a class and to a subject.  I’ve never met Godby’s physics teacher, Zondra Clayton.  But for her to start from zero – no physics at Godby at all – only a few years ago and to get to 118 students this year tells me that she must be a remarkable person.  Adam LeMee’s achievement in driving up physics enrollment at Rickards so quickly that the school had to drag the legendary Lance King out of semi-retirement to help with the load also reflects Adam’s energy and passion.  And while the enrollment increases at Godby and Rickards are the most spectacular, enrollments are rising quickly at Chiles, Leon and Lincoln as well.  That doesn’t happen if the students don’t like the physics teachers.

And these teachers were stirred gently into a community:  In large part due to LeMee’s leadership and the Quarknet program provided by the FSU Physics Department’s Chair Horst Wahl and the department’s high energy physics group, Leon County’s high school physics teachers have formed a supportive community.  Quarknet runs an annual summer workshop, and it has sent several teachers to field trips at Europe’s high energy physics laboratory, CERN (where the Higgs boson was observed).  In addition, LeMee organizes a “TeachMeet” meeting once a month or so at the Beef O’Brady’s on Thomasville Road.  There is no substitute for the support of a community of people who are trying to do something challenging together.

Teachers took advantage of new tools for promoting physics enrollment:  The new AP Physics 1 course arrived this year, and Leon County physics teachers adopted the new course at the highest rate in Florida.  Of the district’s 1043 physics students this year (compared to 613 last year), 331 are enrolled in the new AP Physics 1 course.  Ambitious students realize that AP courses look good on their college applications, and they were often hesitant to register for an Honors Physics class instead of AP Chemistry or AP Biology.  Now that AP Physics 1 is available and is intended to be a first physics course, students can take physics and get the AP credit for their college applications.

The teachers had the support of their principals:  …or at the least the principals stayed out of their way.  But school leadership can certainly stop an instructional initiative – even physics.  Leon County’s only charter high school does not offer physics.  When I asked the school’s director about this a few years ago, she responded that she would hire a physics teacher only if the teacher also had certifications in biology and chemistry.  I was too polite – or too timid – to ask why she had hired biology teachers who didn’t have chemistry and physics certifications.  But it so happened that a star science teacher – one who indeed had certifications in biology, chemistry and physics – became available and expressed an interest in teaching at this charter high school.  He ended up at Leon High School instead.  I can say with confidence that Hell will freeze over before this charter school will open the doors of opportunity to careers in engineering and physical sciences for its students by offering physics.  And that is a shame.  Fortunately, Leon County’s students (and their parents) have the choice of avoiding this charter school and taking advantage of the excellent physics programs at all of the district’s regular high schools.  School choice can be a wonderful thing.

And a pinch of advocacy for high school physics was included:  Many parents, teachers and students in Leon County understand the importance of high school physics for opening the doors of opportunity to our century’s most economically viable careers.  That’s because organizations like Quarknet and the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory have been pushing.  And I’ll take a wee bit of credit for that myself.  But I also understand the limits of advocacy.  During my youngest child’s last two years of high school, he attended a private “college preparatory” school after transferring from one of the district’s regular public schools.  You would think that in a “college preparatory” school every student would take physics.  But if you thought that you’d be wrong.  It turns out that the rate at which students at this private school take physics is actually below the rate of physics course-taking at Jefferson County Middle and High School, which has socioeconomic challenges that I can’t even begin to imagine.  During the two years I was a parent at this private school, I was Chair of the Committee on Education of the American Physical Society (APS), the national guild of professional physicists.  I played a leading role in coaxing the APS to adopt its first-ever statement in support of high school physics.  I engineered a committee endorsement of the Next Generation Science Standards.  I wrote frequent pro-high school physics opinion pieces for the Tallahassee Democrat and other media outlets.  I met with the Florida Commissioner of Education and helped successfully argue for the placement of an APS fellow in the US Department of Education.  But my arguments for expanding physics instruction at my son’s private school were completely ineffective.  I totally failed there.

The bottom line:  There is no substitute for charismatic and passionate teachers who believe in the importance of their subject and support each other.  Any school district that needs a “physics turnaround” (Are you listening, Alachua County?) needs to start there.

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