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Utah father had to fight for daughter to drop AP class

Published October 20, 2013 4:33 pm

After East High refuses a student's request to drop an AP class, her father — an advocate for parents' rights ­— appeals and wins.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Andie Thompson, a 17-year-old junior at East High School, decided she wanted out of a rigorous Advanced Placement biology class.

But a school counselor said dropping the class would be a violation of school policy — and it would show as an "F" on her school transcript, her father says.

After Gary Thompson failed to persuade the counselor, he had Andie and her tutor meet with the biology teacher and a vice principal, Greg Maughan, who also rejected her request. The frustrated father next hired an attorney and wrote a long appeal to Principal Paul Sagers, who decides such appeals.

Last week, Sagers sent Thompson a letter that said Andie can leave the class and will suffer no negative repercussions.

The victory, while good for his child, was a hollow one for Thompson, a champion of parents' rights as the director of advocacy at Early Life Child Psychology and Education Center in South Jordan.

"No quote-unquote normal parent would have been able to get this decision," said Thompson, who has a doctorate in psychology and co-owns the center with his wife, Fran Thompson, a clinical psychologist.

"In reality, I should have been able to walk into my child's counseling office and say 'Hey, my kid's struggling. Let's just drop the class.' He (the counselor) should have said, 'You're the parent. You're in charge of your student.' "

Sagers said Monday that Maughan did not have all the facts before refusing to let Andie drop the class. Thompson had disclosed in the appeal that the advanced class stressed his daughter, who has an anxiety condition, a fact he previously had kept private.

"They (the vice principal) can only make a decision on what they know and what's been revealed to them. He was basing the decision on what he thought was best for her," Sagers said.

A rule for rigor • Andie, whose grade point average in her sophomore year ranged from 3.00 to 3.50, said she signed up for the AP class to "take it up a step."

By the first week, though, she knew it was a mistake. The class was the last thing on her mind each night and the first thing in the morning. Everything worried her, she said: "The commitment you have to make to study every single day, the amount you have to study, how much you have to learn to pass the test."

Generally, East High does not allow students to drop AP classes, in part because the school is trying to increase its academic rigor, Sagers said. East High's course catalog spells out that AP classes cannot be dropped, as do the registration cards that students and parents sign, he said.

It also would be unfair to teachers in regular classes, which already are larger, to accommodate AP students who decide advanced classes are not for them, Sagers said.

Still, Maughan sometimes allows students to drop AP classes, particularly if it is clear the student should not have been in the class in the first place, he added.

Regular classes can be dropped within the first two weeks. The school builds its master schedule based on what classes students say they want to take, and it would create havoc for students to be able to drop classes at any time, Sagers said.

Thompson said he never would have allowed his daughter to register for an AP class had he known of the rule.

The principal called the Thompson case a "rare, rare exception," in which the school and parents did not agree on the best course of action. "We both (parents and school) want what's right for the kids," he said.

Brook Wardle, a volunteer at the Early Life center, where Andie's tutor is the director of education, said he sees plenty of cases in which parents differ with educators. He helps parents advocate for their children in schools.

"It's been my experience there's a high level of arrogance," he said. "They feel they know what's better for your child than you do."

Dropping decisions • Moya Kessig of the Utah Office of Education said there are no guidelines telling schools they should not let students drop AP classes. "That's a local or district decision," she said.

There is also no financial incentive for such a rule, said Kessig, the specialist over accelerated programs.

Districts get money — and generally pass it on to the high schools — based on the number of students who pass AP exams. The amount is small, she said, amounting to as little as $35 for each passing AP exam.

Most high schools discourage dropping classes, but many along the Wasatch Front allow students to drop any class, including AP, within the first week or two of school.

Granite School District has no fixed deadline for changing or dropping classes, said Judith Petersen, director of college and career readiness.

Students and their parents make such requests — whether for regular or AP classes — through a school counselor and teachers are consulted, she said. "We make every effort to personalize and individualize students' course schedules," Petersen said.

Canyons School District allows students to transfer or drop a class within the first 10 days, and after that, schools take requests on a case-by-case basis, said Jennifer Toomer-Cook, spokeswoman for the district.

Spokesman Jason Olsen said high schools in the Salt Lake District have varying policies, but requests to drop classes are generally handled by counselors and administrators on a case-by-case basis.

In the Ogden District, students can drop any class within the first two weeks of school but will get a grade, even failing, after that.

Weber schools have a one-week window at the beginning of each semester. "After this we work with students as we can," said Nate Taggart, a district spokesman.

In the Alpine District, schools vary in their policies. But generally, "there is a two-three-week window at the beginning of a term where a change can be made if the request is determined reasonable," spokeswoman Kimberly Bird said in an email.

If a student is failing a class because it's too difficult, he or she is typically allowed to drop. "However, if a student is requesting to drop AP chemistry because they do not like it and would rather take PE or another subject," Bird said, "that request would be denied."

kmoulton@sltrib.com

Twitter: @KristenMoulton