Top of the Class: ‘It’s probably one of my proudest accomplishments, making it through’

  • Belmont native Courtney Clary (left) at her graduation with a classmate at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. Courtesy

  • —Courtesy

  • —Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 9/2/2019 10:00:28 PM

Academics always came easily to Courtney Clary at Belmont High School.

The 2011 valedictorian took every AP class offered there, while balancing extra-curricular activities: she competed in three varsity sports, was on the school’s math team and performed in the school’s jazz and concert bands.

But things got a lot harder when Clary arrived at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, for her first year of college. Clary no longer felt like the smart kid. She had always excelled at math and science in high school, but after her first three classes in her introductory to chemistry course at Vanderbilt, she felt herself falling behind.

Her classmates at Vanderbilt had taken courses and electives at their high schools that she had never even dreamed of having access to at Belmont.

“You start thinking, ‘This is a mistake, I shouldn’t be here. Maybe I’m smart for Belmont, but not for here,’ ” Clary said.

In New Hampshire, educational opportunities vary from school district to school district, based on school budgets, which are funded through property taxes.

One example of the disparity in opportunity can be seen through options for advanced placement courses.

Concord High School offers 14 AP classes and Bow offers 11, according to the school’s course catalogs. By contrast, Belmont offers seven, Franklin offers two AP courses, one of which will be offered for the first time this year. Pittsfield offers no AP classes.

“Education in the state, when you look at one school district and compare it to another, is not created equal,” said Andu Volinksy, executive councilor and lawyer for school districts who successfully argued the state’s education funding formula was unconstitutional. “Students do not graduate from our schools having had access to the same opportunities.”

‘Don’t have the resources’

When Clary was at Belmont, she remembers there being just a couple of AP courses available for students. She said she remembers having to convince a friend to take AP calculus with her so the class would not be canceled. Administrators said they needed at least two students to sign up for the course.

When Clary got to Vanderbilt, she found that most of her classmates had been taking AP classes all four years of high school.

“Belmont did the best it could. They don’t have the resources, they don’t have the amount of students. It’s a limitation of being a rural district,” she said. “The few people I knew from rural areas, they had similar problems. It’s hard to compare with kids who went to private school or well-funded public high schools.”

Clary found herself struggling in her introductory classes at Vanderbilt. There, it seemed like everyone was the valedictorian or salutatorian of his or her high school class.

“I noticed it right away,” she said. “People were partying, people were relaxing and I’m sitting in the library trying to figure out the chemistry lecture I just sat through and didn’t understand anything.”

“I was playing catch up for two years,” she added. “It’s hard to reconcile that, and stick with it. A lot of people don’t.”

Eun Lee Koh, senior director of communications at the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College, said students coming into Dartmouth with different levels of education is something professors see all the time.

“That initial struggle can often act as a barrier or discourage students from continuing on their engineering careers,” she said.

A program was founded at Dartmouth recently called Dartmouth Emerging Engineers, that works to help support students, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds, gain the background and training they are missing.

“It’s about bringing those students up to a level where they feel comfortable and encouraged to keep going in their engineering careers,” he said.

Clary was able to make it through Vanderbilt, where she earned a biomedical engineering degree. She now works at Capsule Technologies in Andover, Mass. where she helps hospitals with medical devices and electronic sharing.

“It’s probably one of my proudest accomplishments, making it through,” she said. “I had to work harder than I have had to in my life.”

‘Unfair’ system

When students come from an underfunded district in New Hampshire, families have a few options to help them prepare for college: leave the district and enroll in a private or charter school, or seek educational opportunities outside of school to try to supplement that educational gap.

For most families, that is a challenge, Volinsky said.

“If you have a middle-class family, if you’re financially stressed or a single parent or have a family member with a medical condition, you just can’t make up for it,” he said. “The schools in many of these communities are not going to be able to provide a standalone pathway to college.”

Pittsfield Superintendent John Freeman said he gets kids coming back to school saying they felt less prepared than their peers.

“Pittsfield is victimized by the state’s unfair system – both the students and taxpayers,” he said. “It disadvantages our students compared to other students.”

Freeman said Pittsfield used to have extended learning opportunities funded through grants that he believed help close the gap in education. The district had a coordinator that helped students connect with internships in the community at colleges and with professionals in fields like genetics and architecture.

But in the last few years those opportunities have been eliminated. He said the district has been forced to cut one faculty position a year over the past 10 years. They now not only have no AP classes, and can no longer offer foreign languages classes, either.

“I do have concerns for our students, even for elementary schoolers,” he said. “I wonder what opportunities they will have and what will be lacking by the time they get to middle and high school.”

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