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Hotbed for learning

A school within a school offers AP prep classes to underclassmen. The result is a close-knit family of scholars who willingly bite into as much learning as they can chew.

[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]
Freshmen Sharon Ubele and Kaylee Tatman, both 14, translate "hungry" for their AP Spanish class on Thursday. The students are in a class that is part of the new Advanced Placement Academy at Springstead High.

By ROBERT KING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 13, 2002

SPRING HILL -- In its first five months of existence, Springstead High School's Advanced Placement Academy has succeeded on at least one front.

It has people excited about teaching and learning.

In what may best be described as a school within a school, Springstead created a new program this year for students who were interested in taking the most rigorous academic courses the school has to offer.

There were 57 students in the first class of freshmen willing to take the challenge. After one semester, the general consensus among those involved is that the school has created a hotbed for learning.

Students say they love the courses and the teachers who are pushing them to greater heights. Teachers say their students have shown a love of learning that bubbles over in class.

"Sometimes they are a little overeager. They ask a thousand questions, and you have to be on your toes," said Spanish teacher Iris Delgado. "I'm used to asking questions and hoping for a response."

Justin Demutiis, a 15-year-old student in the academy, heard a lecture Friday that touched on the differences between neoclassical and romantic literature. It sounded like the stuff you might hear in college.

"I think it's a great academy," Demutiis said. "I wouldn't want to go into school and have it be easy for me because I like the challenge."

Just how great is the enthusiasm?

Several of these freshmen take part in voluntary after-school study groups. There's such an extensive network that kids who have been out sick frequently return to school with their missed class notes in hand, according to AP math teacher Charles Bruno.

"They have an abundance of energy," Bruno said. "They like the scholastic-type feeling they are getting."

Springstead wanted the Advanced Placement Academy to give the school's brightest kids a high hurdle to clear, something not always present in the past.

But the academy has also attracted average students who have shown a willingness to work hard and even a few who knew they would have to claw to keep up, said Sean Sexton, a teacher who is guiding the program.

Still, Sexton said he has talked with some parents who were shocked to see something other than an A on their child's report card. "They have to work in all their classes; there is nothing to skate on," Sexton said. "Not getting A's in everything is traumatic, but they are feeling the exact value of their work."

Student Lisa Augustyniak has found the workload in the AP Academy to be tough. "It's new because in middle school we didn't do that much," she said. "I'm adapting."

One student dropped out of the AP program this semester because his parents were concerned the tough classes could hurt his chances to get college scholarships.

But Sexton said people who feel that way are missing the point. Sometimes students with good grade-point averages in high school find it hard to keep their scholarships in college.

Students who take AP courses and pass their exams get college credits, even if their grade-point averages aren't the highest in the school. "That is a scholarship in itself," Sexton said.

And there is evidence to show that AP students are more likely to stay in college because they are better prepared than students who might take less rigorous classes, said Bruno, the math teacher.

Springstead has been offering several Advanced Placement courses to upperclassmen for years. Now, with the full-fledged academy, Springstead is offering AP prep classes to underclassmen.

This semester, 53 freshmen and 26 sophomores (who will enjoy only three years of the program) are still committed. As they move up the ranks together, their numbers will guarantee that there will be enough students to justify a broad slate of AP courses.

In the past, some AP classes would be canceled for lack of interest.

Beyond the tough classes, students who want to stay in the academy must maintain a C average or face academic probation and, barring improvement, dismissal from the AP Academy. They must maintain portfolios of their classwork and be disciplined enough to read a long slate of books over each summer of their high school career.

One aspect of the program that is proving popular is the family atmosphere that is a result of the small size of the program.

The freshmen have been divided into two teams. Students on each team have four of their six classes together each day, breeding a familiarity and a comfort level not always present in a big high school.

"Most people at Springstead aren't together all day. There may be 10 kids in the class that you don't know," said Cecilia Bolich, 14. "We are with the same kids all through the day, and we do become a family."

"It's just a good society," Demutiis said.

The 15 Springstead teachers who have at least one AP Academy class have become familiar with the students, too.

"I feel very open to them," said Danielle Moore, 14. "We can tell them anything."

One thing that helps, Moore said, is that the teachers expect their students to be good scholars. They do not talk down to the students, she said.

Such closeness became evident when one of the students in the academy was found dead in his home on Dec. 20, the apparent victim of an accident related to his abuse of an inhalant.

Sexton said Christopher Pascullo was a good writer who earned an A in his AP prep world literature class last semester. He was clever, if quiet, and not a child prone to be the center of attention. "I was shocked," Sexton said. "I never thought it would be him."

Students were told of Pascullo's death in a gathering in the school library on the final day before Christmas break. Each of the academy teachers was on hand to console students. Some of the students broke off into groups for prayer.

Bolich, one of the students, said she was touched to see tears from some of the teachers.

It was probably the biggest challenge to face the academy so far. In response, AP students have received counseling and instruction about the danger of inhalants like the one Pascullo was using when he died.

"We're not immune to the ills of society because we are in an AP Academy," Sexton said.

Looking ahead, the freshmen in the AP Academy will continue working toward the national AP exams they will start taking in their junior and senior years. Their success or failure on the exams will be the ultimate gauge for the program's success.

"So far, so good. We are learning as we go," said Sexton. "And the kids are a joy."

-- Robert King covers education in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to

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