Are parents’ and students’ college admission fears driving down high school physics enrollments?

Last summer, Florida State University’s lab school, which graduates about 130 high school students each year, spent $30,000 to build the ideal hands-on studio-style physics learning environment.  In one of its classrooms, the school installed D-shaped tables that seat six students each and large computer monitors on the walls so that all of the students sitting at each table can monitor the work that other students are doing.  They purchased the lab equipment necessary to the implement learning exercises designed by physics education researchers.

But according to Florida Department of Education numbers, only 12 students were taking physics in that classroom this fall.  That means that high school students in FSU’s K-12 research school were enrolling in physics at only half the rate of the state at large and only one-quarter of a national rate measured in a survey of state departments of education in 2015.

Why is the physics enrollment rate so dismal at a school that is supposed to be a showcase for state-of-the-art educational practices?  When I met with high school officials last spring, they told me that parents were concerned that if their students signed up for a physics class and struggled that the resulting grade – perhaps a “B” or a “C” – would keep them from getting admitted to highly competitive colleges.

And when parents talk about “highly competitive colleges” here in Florida, they are not just talking about Yale or Amherst.  They are talking about the state’s “preeminent” public universities – FSU and the University of Florida.  The numbers of applications to these two institutions have continued to grow, making it tougher to get admitted.

Are parents right to be concerned that a “poor” grade in physics (or calculus, for that matter) could keep them out of UF or FSU?  Perhaps.  Recently, I asked an FSU admissions official for an unambiguous statement of encouragement for taking physics and calculus in high school.  He did not respond.

Nevertheless, there are high schools where large numbers of students take courses like physics and calculus despite college admissions pressures.  Fifteen miles north of FSU’s lab school, students are enrolled in physics classes at Lawton Chiles High School at six times the rate they are at the lab school.  During the next several years, about half of Chiles graduates will have had a physics course – outpacing the state rate by more than a factor of two and even beating the national rate.

Chiles has an unusually affluent student population – even more affluent than that at FSU’s lab school.  But Godby High School – 10 miles northwest of FSU’s lab school – does not.  In the Fall of 2016, Godby had a free and reduced-price lunch eligibility rate of about 90%.  Nevertheless, Godby students were enrolled in physics at a rate four times higher than at the lab school, double the state rate and within shouting distance of the Chiles rate.

So why are FSU lab school parents and students deterred from physics classes by fears about college admission when those at Chiles and Godby are not?

Perhaps the best insight I have received about this question has come from a physics teacher 250 miles away from Tallahassee – at Lake Mary High School in Seminole County, north of Orlando.  Seminole County is a traditional Florida superpower in math and science.  The entire school district takes high school physics at a rate even higher than that of Tallahassee’s Chiles High School.  This is what the teacher, Steve DeSanto, had to say a few years ago:

The most significant reason for our high physics enrollment has little to do with us as teachers.  Lake Mary has a school academic culture that feeds into physics.  We have AP, Gifted/Talented, and Honors courses throughout the curriculum.  Students are given ample opportunity to challenge themselves from the day they walk onto campus as a freshman.  Among our honors students, the school culture leads down the academic path – an honors student is simply expected to take biology, chemistry, and physics.  That’s the way it is.This comes in large part from the teachers they have before reaching physics.  The teachers are advising the students during registration.  We always tell our science teachers to register kids based on their ability, not based on their behavior.  A bright kid who doesn’t do homework shouldn’t end up in standard classes due to laziness.  Bright kids should be in honors classes.

Before I move on, I should point out one error in Steve’s analysis:  The physics teachers (including Steve) play a key role in maintaining the culture of excellence, as the Orlando Sentinel described a few years ago.

But aside from that caveat, is it true that some schools are just somehow gifted with cultures of excellence and others aren’t?  Is there no way for a school like FSU’s lab school to turn its culture around so that it is like Chiles, Godby or Lake Mary?

The search for an answer to that question takes us to Bay County, 100 miles west of Tallahassee in the Florida Panhandle.  The Bay County school district has about 28,000 students – comparable to Leon County (where Tallahassee is located).

Two years ago, Bay County had the lowest physics enrollment rate of any non-rural school district in Florida.  Since then the district’s enrollment rate has increased by a factor of about two-and-a-half.

How have they done it?  Teachers and counselors at the district’s high schools have summoned the courage to talk with students and parents about the importance of taking physics as well as other subjects important for preparing for college majors in STEM fields, including chemistry, precalculus and calculus.

Three years ago, there was no physics being taught at Bay County’s Rutherford High School.  This fall, thanks to the effort and charisma of teacher Rachel Morris, the school has about 60 students taking physics – including a number taking a second-year physics course under the umbrella of the school’s International Baccalaureate program.

Two years ago, Mosley High School had six students taking physics.  Now, thanks to the guts and determination of guidance counselors Sharon Hofer and Laura Evans and the skill and patience of physics teacher Lance King, Mosley has about 60 students taking physics, including a second-year AP Physics 2 course.  Chemistry enrollments at Mosley have tripled during the same time, and calculus enrollments are up as well.

As recently as last year, Bay County’s Bozeman School – a K-12 school located in the rural northern part of the county that graduates about 100 high school students each year – didn’t offer physics at all.  For this year, Bozeman’s leadership recruited chemistry and physics teacher Denise Newsome and started a physics class of 20 students.  Bozeman is now by far the best school in the rural Panhandle for math and science.

To be sure, the Bay District high schools have had external help from FSU, including an infusion of physics lab teaching equipment for the new physics courses and an aggressive middle school outreach program.  But without the courageous initiative of teachers and counselors – backed up by the resolve of leadership to support these efforts – none of the external support would have mattered.  There is much more work to do in Bay County, but the district is on track.

Bay County’s improvement demonstrates there is hope for change in the culture at FSU’s lab school.  Unfortunately, we can’t count on help from college admissions officers like those at FSU.  But at least at some high schools teachers, counselors and leaders are willing to push for excellence, anyway.


The studio science classroom at FSU’s lab school just prior to completion.


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