A REVIEW SESSION before the Regents exam. (Emily Benson photo)
A REVIEW SESSION before the Regents exam. (Emily Benson photo)

This year’s graduating class from St. Ambrose School in Latham is heading into high school well-prepared.

A group of eighth-graders just took the New York State Regents exam in living environment (biology). The biology course that leads up to the exam is typically taught in ninth grade, but St. Ambrose allowed the students to take the class a year ahead of schedule as an advanced-placement course.

Starting in the fall, St. Ambrose will shift its focus to its pre-kindergarten classes and discontinue its seventh and eighth grades. The shift makes these students the last eighth-grade class graduating from St. Ambrose, and the last to take the Regents biology course.

J.R. Barkamian, science teacher for grades five to eight, teaches biology at St. Ambrose. He said the course will give the graduates an advantage as they enter high school.

“It’s easier, if you want to take AP courses,” to get ahead now, Mr. Barkamian told The Evangelist. The St. Ambrose students will enter high school with more room in their schedule to take other advanced-placement classes, some of which “could transfer as college credits,” the teacher said.

Connor Fogarty said that was one of the benefits he saw in taking the course.

“My friend is in his senior year; he has an open period to use to take college classes and get ahead,” he said. Connor hopes to do the same.

C.J. Haver said he was able to complete eighth-grade science last year, so he took the biology course at St. Ambrose this year because he “didn’t want to do it twice.”

Mr. Barkamian said there was no placement test to decide who could take biology. After teaching science to the same class from fifth through eighth grade, he noted, he had an idea of who would be a good fit for the advanced course.

“Since I’ve been here, all students have passed the [Regents] exam. I haven’t had one fail,” the teacher said.

In biology, students study topics like cell division and human anatomy and are required to complete reports from lab work performed in class. One popular lab was frog dissection.

Mr. Fogarty admitted with a laugh that, when he agreed to teach the course, “I didn’t think we had to do labs.”

Before the June 13 Regents exam, students spent a lot of time reviewing the year’s coursework. Mr. Barkamian went over graphs and data and quizzed the class: “What makes up DNA? What makes a compound organic?”

As the exam loomed, Mr. Barkamian said the class was in “panic mode,” but he had total confidence in his students: “We have a big review session after school, and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, I know this.’ They’ll do just fine.”

“I think it was interesting,” said C.J. “Not having to do [biology] again in ninth grade, it’s an advantage in high school.”

Along with its shift to pre-K after this academic year, St. Ambrose will be eliminating its “spiral” curriculum and switching to blocked curriculum. The spiral method involved teaching a variety of science subjects throughout the school year. For example, one quarter students would learn earth science, the next biology and the next physics. With the spiral curriculum, students in the biology class were already exposed to some of the course material.

Next year, students will spend a whole year learning one science subject, allowing teachers to explore that subject more in-depth.

Mr. Barkamian remarked on the changes, particularly the final Regents biology course for eighth-graders: “When anybody makes a change, there are pros and cons to it. I enjoy teaching biology, but this is the right thing for the school to do.”