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Not their fault

Westwood High tells colleges it couldn't afford some AP courses

Last spring, Westwood High School senior Elizabeth Walsh signed up for advanced placement courses in government, statistics, and environmental science, plus chorus. But budget cuts wound up eliminating all four classes.

"It was extremely disappointing," she said. "It seemed very limiting."

School administrators worried about a potentially bigger problem: What if the loss of advanced course credits made these students less attractive college applicants? What if the colleges saw these students -- particularly the 30 who were unable to take a fourth year of science -- as slackers, unwilling to take a more rigorous course load?

So in an unusually assertive step, guidance counselors are writing college admissions officers explaining the situation, assuring them that Westwood applicants' lack of certain advanced courses is not their fault.

The move highlights the widespread impact of school budget cutbacks that have struck even affluent communities, where admission to selective colleges is a high priority.

"We wanted to make it clear that students weren't able to access certain courses," said Lynne Medsker, the school's guidance director. With many students applying to highly competitive schools where admissions decisions can hinge on the slightest of factors, the letter sought to provide "an extra layer of assurance" that students did not have the usual range of options, she said.

Many schools, Westwood among them, strongly recommend that students take four years of the major academic disciplines: mathematics, English, social studies, and science. But this year, seniors such as Ryan Gold who had already taken biology, chemistry, and physics -- and planned to take advanced placement environmental science this year -- were out of luck. Gold, who ranks science as his strongest subject, worried that the course's absence will weaken his chances at attending selective schools such as Syracuse University, Boston College, Boston University, and Lehigh University.

He welcomed the school's explanation on his behalf. "I think it will help," he said.

He may well be right. Consider the views of Stonehill College's dean of admissions: "We certainly would have noticed" the absence of some classes, said the dean, Brian Murphy. "The assumption would have been that a student chose not to take the more rigorous route."

Stonehill College, which accepts roughly 20 Westwood students each year, ranks "rigor of curriculum" as the largest factor in admissions decisions, he said. The lack of certain advanced classes on a transcript can hurt students' chances. Despite the letter, students who took a maximum number of advanced classes will still hold an advantage over those who didn't, Murphy said.

Gail Berson, dean of admission at Wheaton College, a private liberal arts college in Norton, said colleges realize that the range of courses available to high school students varies widely and so "would never penalize a student for classes that aren't available." Still, she said, she appreciates that Westwood is taking the time to explain why the courses are not included on student transcripts.

The letter of explanation that Westwood officials are sending to Murphy and other admissions officers tells them to "be aware that we experienced substantial budget cuts last spring which significantly impacted our course offerings for the 2006-2007 school year."

"We encourage all of our students to build a solid academic record in preparation for college by taking four years of all their academic subjects," the letter continued. "A number of seniors who would have continued on with a fourth year of science, social studies, and/or foreign language, or combination were unable to take the recommended courses because they were not offered."

The eight courses eliminated were environmental science, AP environmental science, AP government & politics, AP psychology, AP statistics, Latin IV, AP French V, and chorus.

After no increase in 2006, the district's budget rose 4.6 percent this year, but school administrators said that increase was not enough to keep pace with rising utilities and special-education costs, and forced teacher layoffs, higher student fees, and larger classes.

Emily Parks, principal of Westwood High School, said a $250,000 budget cut this year, combined with previous staff reductions, forced the elimination of classes -- particularly advanced placement courses -- that were likely to draw only enough students for one session. But the cuts left many students without a science class unless they took an advanced placement version of a subject they had already taken.

Parks said the high school's reputation for providing a full slate of classes convinced counselors it was important to send the letter. Colleges pay particular attention to senior year class selection, she said, to make sure students haven't signed up for a lighter schedule.

Parks and Medsker said parents were pleased that the school had made the effort to send the letter.

A survey of selected other area high schools turned up no others that have sent a letter similar to Westwood's, although guidance counselors lauded the idea. Walter Hughes, guidance department chairman at neighboring Norwood High School, praised Westwood's approach as a "terrific step" that would only help its students. "The more information admissions officers have, the better off the students are," he said.

Walsh, the senior applying to McGill University, Bates College, Holy Cross, Mount Holyoke, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said she was "certainly concerned" about their reaction to her courses. The letters, she said, should clear up any doubts. "I have faith that they will."

Peter Schworm can be reached at

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