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Middle school rigor helps students dig into tougher courses

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Even some of the brightest students will shy away from Advanced Placement courses to protect their grade-point average and avoid the extra work.

Columbus East High School guidance director Doug Moore has seen evidence of that from class-scheduling sessions.

“Most human beings will do what they have to do and not much more,” Moore said.

Former college admissions officer Polly Verbanic, a member of the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. board, said she could easily pick out soft schedules on high school student transcripts.

But measures are in place to change students’ mindsets.

High-level courses are being added to high school degree requirements, and Central Middle School Principal Randy Gratz has a plan to prepare his students earlier for more rigorous learning.

The school’s Advanced Curriculum Program will go through a transformation that will create a pathway to the high school’s AP courses.

“They need the rigor at the middle school level to get them ready to go,” Gratz said. “It’ll have more students ready and at ease. Had they had a better background here, they would already be used to the structure of AP instruction, the vocabulary use and the test questions.”

Bob Abrams, school board vice president, said he was impressed with the proposal and would hope Northside Middle School will follow suit if the pilot program goes well.

“I trust you’re stealing good ideas from each other,” he said.

Paving the way

The pieces are already in place for the new pathway at CMS, Gratz said. Teachers already are trained to teach high-ability students, and the courses are offered.

“It’s just a matter of digging deeper into content, getting kids to go beyond the surface,” he said.

They’ll do that by implementing SpringBoard, the College Board’s official pre-AP curriculum, and focusing professional development on the changing curriculum.

Teachers will be trained to incorporate the same type of vocabulary and exam questions used in the high school AP courses.

Middle school students won’t earn AP credits, but they will know what to expect when they enroll in the courses later in their academic careers.

“It’s a total instructional package of getting kids engaged, connecting to the community and using those kinds of things other than just the textbook,” he said.

The school uses SpringBoard texts for math, and a high-ability instructional grant will cover the costs of professional development for teachers.

Current seventh-graders will be selected to participate in the pilot program next year based on grade performance, input from teachers and parents, and students’ commitment to enrolling in future AP courses.

Columbus North High School Principal David Clark said he supports the pathway but hopes selection is done intentionally.

“My hope would be that we target kids that are not your traditional high-level achievers but rather begin to target kids that have the talent but sometimes hide,” he said.

There’s a culture of competition in high school and college, Clark said.

“You hear, ‘I’ve got to be in the top 10, I’ve got to get A’s on all my tests,’” he said. “But there are students who are intellectually bright enough but just don’t get caught up in the competitive nature. They’re still going to get in college and still be successful whether they’re 10th or 15th.”

The goal of the pre-AP pathway is to take the focus away from the competition and place it on learning — to recognize talent on the same level as achievement.

But Clark said colleges and universities do not always do that, which creates a problem.

A financial trade-off

Large universities sometimes award automatic scholarships based on a strict formula of GPA and admissions test scores. The practice encourages GPA-building instead of knowledge-building, which goes against the district’s philosophy, Clark said.

“It costs them (students) scholarship money,” he said. “Colleges have to have a measure somewhere, but I don’t know the formula is the most accurate measure of a student’s ability.”

Verbanic, the former associate director of admissions at DePauw University, said students should understand that college admissions officers are looking for more than straight A’s.

“We would rather see a rigorous transcript at the expense of grades,” she said.

The potential loss in scholarship money seems to balance out, however.

Although AP courses could lower a student’s GPA, many graduates have found taking advanced courses can save them tuition and fees in the long run.

“AP really showed me what I didn’t want to do and also what I wanted to do, which is a cheaper way of doing that before you go to college,” Columbus East graduate Colin Singer said. “You won’t go to college and say, ‘Man, I have no idea what I want to do.’ If you can get that over with in high school, it saves you a lot of money and college classes you don’t want to take.”

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