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School goes AP in a big way

At Springstead High, student enthusiasm for the new Advanced Placement Academy is followed by improving performance on the AP tests.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 22, 2002


SPRING HILL -- Stephanie O'Brien wants to study paleontology at Yale University someday.

So when she had the opportunity to enroll in Springstead High School's Advanced Placement Academy in the fall, the 14-year-old freshman did not hesitate.

"I was looking more for a challenge to start into the ninth grade," Stephanie said last week, after completing a tough semester exam in literature. "I figured AP was the way to go."

She was not alone.

The accelerated program, now in its second year, generated so much interest that the administration was forced to expand it from two sections of 30 freshmen to three. Fifty-eight original students remained in the program as sophomores.

As the program has grown, it also has enlarged its curriculum.

Originally focused on calculus, physics, U.S. history and English literature, the academy has added Spanish literature, statistics, world history and psychology. Plans are in the works to add language and composition and other courses next year.

Perhaps most encouraging, student performance on the national AP tests, which can be used to gain college credit, vastly improved.

In 2000, only 26 percent of Springstead AP test takers earned a score of 3, 4 or 5 -- the level at which many colleges and universities will consider offering course credit. Many students did not even take the tests after going through the AP course work.

Now, the school requires everyone in an AP class to take the exams, and they're doing much better. Last year, 83 students took 112 AP exams, and 54 percent scored 3 or better. Springstead students outperformed their peers statewide in English literature and physics.

"We do believe a part of that is our own training and our own preparation," principal Dot Dodge said.

Several teachers attended sessions to learn more about the expectations of the College Board on its tests and the class work necessary to prepare students, Dodge said. Many learned that they had to change their teaching techniques.

"The one thing teachers were trying to do was hold on to what they taught and add this (AP) on top of that," Dodge said. "Once we convinced everybody to just stick with this (AP) curriculum .T.T. we had more success."

The staff also worked as a committee on Friday afternoons to better coordinate the academy classes, she said.

Student motivation has been key, Dodge said. Some of the students are so involved in the pursuit of knowledge that they tried to skip lunch to sit in on extra advanced classes.

"Obviously, these children have the capability that comes along with the motivation," she said.

Program director Sean Sexton said the combination of motivated students and well prepared, equally excited teachers had proved a potent mix for success. Teachers must work hard, he said, to help students learn content and the skills to use the knowledge.

The students, in turn, must do much more than regurgitate information provided by the teachers, he said. They are required to analyze, defend their thoughts in writing and orally, find hidden meanings in readings and think more critically than even an honors-level course demands.

This year's freshman world literature class, for instance, performed Greek tragedies during a "Dionysian festival" and then had to debate the value of such a festival as if they were seeking government approval of it.

"If it's just us spouting, they won't internalize it, and they won't remember it for the exam," Sexton said. "They really live it. We hold them to a very hard standard. And they meet the challenge."

It's not easy, though, freshman Shoshannah Kadinger said.

"It's kind of scary to think that you're going to be taking (AP exams), and you're going to fail," Shoshannah, 14, said. "There's that doubt."

But the effort, not to mention the anxiety, is worth it, added freshman Abbey Behensky.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm not doing well because it's so hard," Abbey, 15, said. "But it does stretch your mind and your thinking skills, and it does get you out of your comfort zone. You can't learn if you stay in your comfort zone."

Teaching for AP tests also has affected other courses, Sexton said, because teachers wind up using the techniques and information in different ways for their other students. There is also more coordination among the disciplines, he said, because teachers work more closely together.

"That's a plus for Springstead," Sexton said. "Before the academy, we thought, 'We're not doing the best for our kids.' Now the teachers are engaged with their students. It's made a big difference."

Even as the program progresses, challenges remain.

Math is a key area of concern, Sexton said, and it also affects science performance. He suggested that the district might need to review its overall math curriculum.

The staff must do more to make sure that ninth-graders do not come into the program underprepared and then wash out, he said. He figured more teaming with middle schools would be needed to ensure that more students are prepared for the AP curriculum.

Stephanie, the Yale hopeful, quickly acknowledged the sea of difference between the AP Academy and her middle school experience.

"Mostly, you are babysat in middle school. In high school it's completely different," she said.

And that's just fine with Stephanie, who said the AP program has taught her to prioritize, schedule and deal with the pressure -- in addition to the tough college preparatory curriculum she signed up for.

-- Jeffrey S. Solochek covers education in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to solochek@sptimes.com .

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