GIBSONTON — Last fall, Cydni Thomas, a red-haired 10th-grader who raises blue-ribbon chickens, hunkered down for the hardest class she ever had.
Cydni (pronounced "Sydney") had never heard of Advanced Placement World History. But one of her teachers at East Bay High School told her she could handle it. And if it could help make her a Florida Gator, well then, the 16-year-old figured she would give it a shot.
But the reading load crushed her. Ancient civilizations made her head spin. Her first report card showed an F. A few months in, Cydni wanted out.
But her teacher, a blunt-talking retired Army officer named Dale Hueber, had other ideas. He showed Cydni what a top student's work looked like. He told her how to catch up and where to get extra help. He said she shouldn't be afraid to speak up in class. Then he gave her something even more valuable:
He said, You can do this.
• • •
For decades, AP classes — college-caliber courses in everything from English to biology to statistics — were reserved for an exclusive club. And its members tended to be white, suburban and confidently college bound.
But no more. Increasingly, AP classes are filling up with students who are "average" and low income, black and Hispanic.
From 2004 to 2008, the number of students across the country participating in AP rose from 1.1 million to 1.6 million. In Florida, the numbers jumped from 68,000 to 118,000, making it a national leader.
At Cydni's school, AP is the new normal.
East Bay High does not conjure images of calculus parties. It's down the street from the billowing stacks of TECO Energy's Big Bend power plant, and smack dab in a patch of Florida best known for retired circus performers. The state says it's a C school.
And yet, its AP rates are soaring. Five years ago, 58 East Bay students took the standardized exams that accompany AP courses, fewer than any school in Hillsborough. But last year, 297 did. And for this year's testing season, which begins Monday, 453 will.
"I always said my top kids could compete with the top kids in the district," said East Bay principal Sharon Morris.
The line from AP supporters goes like this: Raise expectations. Offer more support. And watch as supposedly middle-of-the-road students conquer AP, go to college and do better once they get there.
The arguments are compelling. But the proof isn't in yet.
Many AP newbies in Florida are not passing AP tests, which would be a good predictor of success in college. East Bay students took 206 more AP tests last year, but only 37 more tests had passing scores. In Florida, the percentage of passed tests has fallen from 55.6 percent in 2000 to 42 percent last year.
The state wants that to change. Beginning this fall, the state's grading formula for high schools will rely less on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and more on other factors, including AP scores.
The cranked-up accountability ensures that the tough questions that now quietly surround AP will be amplified.
Should so many kids take AP classes, even if they're not headed for college? Can pushing kids so far, so fast demoralize those who fall short? Are the new AP kids prepared enough?
Are teachers being trained enough to help them? Will AP classes be watered down so the new kids can keep pace?
Will the brightest kids lose out?
In a report that drew national attention last week, the Fordham Institute surveyed 1,000 AP teachers. Most said they're holding down the fort on AP quality. But more than half also said too many AP kids are "in over their heads."
Supporters say students benefit, even if they don't pass the tests. They learn what a college-level course is like. They find out how much sweat it takes to succeed in one. And they're more likely to try another AP course and work harder the next time. Those students, they say, become more college focused and more college ready.
In truth, the research findings into those claims are mixed and minimal. But fair-minded observers wouldn't expect scores to rise overnight.
Hillsborough is pushing AP more than any other district in Florida. But it didn't go gangbusters until last year, when it inked a three-year deal with the College Board, the company that oversees AP.
It takes time for all the pieces — more student support, more teacher training, new teaching strategies — to gel, said Eric Bergholm, who directs Hillborough's AP programs and was once principal at South Tampa's Plant High, as well-oiled an AP factory as there is in the country.
"You have to be realistic," Bergholm said. "As times goes on, in three years, four years, five years, everything is going to look different."
• • •
The new face of AP is shy, soft-spoken and rosy cheeked.
Cydni lives with her mom and 14-year-old brother in Ruskin, along with two dogs and two horses. They have one neighbor named Peachy, and another who drives a double-decker swamp buggy that would be at home on My Big Redneck Wedding.
Cydni doesn't wear her heart on her sleeve. But it's on the girly-girl pink of her bedroom walls: a flock of Tinker Bells, 14 ribbons for raising chickens and cows, and enough orange and blue to make a Seminole gag.
Gator lamp. Gator license plate. Gator slippers.
"I really want to go to UF," Cydni said. "The No. 1 vet school. That's where I want to be."
Taking AP classes, she was told, would help her get there. But she worried before signing up. So did her mom, Cynthia Liles, a tropical fish farmer.
The teachers made no bones about it: AP was hard. And Cydni had been an average student. She took some standard classes, some honors. Did good in math. Okay in English.
East Bay looked at Cydni's GPA, her standardized test scores, her discipline record and teacher recommendations. They said she was AP material.
So with visions of Tim Tebow dancing in her head, Cydni dove in — and floundered.
As if Mesopotamia and the spread of Buddhism weren't exotic enough, Cydni had to master what 10 years of schooling somehow failed to teach her: how to take good notes. How to write clear essays. How to discipline herself enough to read 20 pages every other night.
When she got the F, Cydni thought, "My mom's going to kill me."
When Mom saw the F, she thought, There goes the Bright Futures scholarship.
"I want to support my children, but I want a happy medium," said Liles, who graduated from Ruskin Christian School and spent a year at Liberty University in Virginia.
Who wants their kid to fail?
• • •
Late April. A Saturday morning. In Room 006, 14 tenth-graders — half white; half black or Hispanic — are going over a 70-question practice test with Hueber.
"They're going to ask you the definition of feudalism," he says. "What is it?"
Hueber slumps his shoulders.
"A political system," a girl offers.
"A political system," Hueber affirms.
Dale Hueber, 53, bristles with urgency. He spent 22 years in the Army, retired as a lieutenant colonel, then went into teaching. He has been doing it eight years, all at East Bay.
He makes no apologies for being old school. No slang. No gimmicks. He expects his students to learn the material, and if they fall short, he may cock his head to the side, or sigh, or say, "Oh God, come on."
Hueber is no-nonsense about Hillsborough's AP vision, too.
When he first started teaching AP World History five years ago, he had one class with 13 students. The cream of the crop. Now he has four classes and 83 students. The top kids are still there. But so are some who are marginal readers.
Yes, Hueber said, that means teachers must work harder. Yes, some are frustrated. Yes, he thinks the school cracked the AP doors open a little too wide. Yes, a few students have dropped out.
But no, he's not second guessing what the district is doing. Most of the new AP kids are proud enough to try their best, he said. Most are learning something.
And all of them deserve a better shot at the American Dream than other classes were giving them.
"They're stretching me," he said. "I've had to slow down in some cases. I've had to rework some of my instruction. And I'm still not happy about what I'm doing."
But "I know these kids can get it," he said. "If they're not getting there, I'm not doing something right."
• • •
Cydni decided to gut it out.
She attended Mr. Hueber's Saturday sessions. She worked three to four hours every other night. She pulled her first all nighter.
She started thinking, I like learning about revolutions.
Her F has become a C.
"It's passing (but) I think I can do better," Cydni said.
She'll have a chance to prove it next year, when she takes three AP classes.
She signed up for them on her own.
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.