Extra effort for extra credit

Advanced Placement classes push students to stretch their limits.

Published May 13, 2007

BROOKSVILLE - If you'd been at Hernando High School over the winter vacation, you would have seen a strange sight one morning.

Students were climbing over the fence to get into the school, carrying books. And coffee. To study.

Even in January, students meeting with English teacher Peggy Keller-Peacock knew there wasn't a moment to be wasted. Not with Advanced Placement exams on the horizon.

This week, as many kids begin the low, sweet slide into summer, it's crunch time for those students.

Some 140 AP tests are being administered this spring at Hernando High in eight subjects, from chemistry and calculus to French and Spanish. Some kids are doubling or tripling up, while others have ventured into advanced course work in a single area.

Before this year, there were no AP classes at the school. While the district's other high schools offered them, particularly at Springstead High, much of the attention at Hernando was focused on addressing the needs of a lower-income population.

Adding the advanced courses is part of an aggressive effort by principal Betty Harper to transform the culture of Hernando High, and make it a place where all students - not just a bright few - can aim high.

Now there are challenging offerings for talented students, as well as extra help and remediation for those who struggle, she said recently.

"I think it has really helped to raise the bar, " Harper said.

Already those changes have been felt, said AP U.S. history teacher Richard Cofer. Students who might never have considered working out their brains are succumbing to the best kind of peer pressure.

"This year I had 15 sophomores willing to brave it, " he said. "Next year I have 43."

Students say they have never worked harder.

"In here, we are pushed, " said senior Alicia Collins, referring to Keller-Peacock's AP literature and composition course. "We have students who are pulling their hair out for the first time, because they're not getting that 'A.' "

"She's not dumbing it down, " agreed senior Kristen Churchill. "I've looked up so many words in this class it's not even funny."

Across campus, students in Gerald Johnston's AP world history course were writing practice thesis statements about the impact of nomads, between the years 600 and 1450, upon the culture of their choice.

"My personal recommendation is China, but you can also look at Russia and the Middle East, " said Johnston, the school's AP coordinator, as his students got to work. "You've got 10 minutes. Go!"

Later on, he asked if there were any takers for an after-school review session.

"Can we do more than one?" asked senior Lauren Adkins, joking not one bit.

Teachers and students alike say the courses are demanding, but not necessarily test-driven.

"There are no worksheets, " said Cofer. "I think they really like that they're getting information like an adult. My classes, they have to read."

For some students, the motivation is an edge in college admissions or entry into advanced courses there. But for others, the courses have helped frame life goals.

"It's definitely putting people's standards higher, and helping them figure out what they want out of life, " said senior Rebecca Weeks, who chose the University of Pennsylvania over Duke.

"She's going to be the best pediatric surgeon in the world, " boasted her friend Lauren Adkins, as the two crammed for their history exam. "And the AP classes prepared her for that."

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or 352 848-1431.