Years ago, Elizabeth Shaunessy-Dedrick was an Advanced Placement teacher in southern Mississippi, tasked with teaching a college-level English class to high school students.
But when her gifted students struggled with the heightened demands, she didn't know what to do. She found that academic research overwhelmingly focused on under-performing students.
"I didn't know what I could do at that time to really help them, other than be supportive and be a listener and be an encourager," Shaunessy-Dedrick said. "I only had intuition and the will to try to understand, but I didn't have enough tools."
She and fellow University of South Florida College of Education professor Shannon Suldo, a former Hillsborough County school psychologist, spent 13 years researching how to support this group of students, which they describe as often "taken for granted." They analyzed 2,400 students in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs across the state and developed a curriculum to help them out — and fill a need for research on the topic.
Now the pair is ready to put their work to the test.
Shaunessy-Dedrick, Suldo and their team of USF researchers recently received approval to introduce the Advancing Coping and Engagement (ACE) program at 16 high schools in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties.
About 50 freshmen in each tested school will have weekly lessons, usually delivered by a USF researcher, that will teach them how to become engaged in school, connect with teachers when they need help and develop time management, organization and skills to cope with stress.
The study will target two ninth-grade classes of either IB Inquiry Skills or AP Human Geography at each school, though some schools will not receive the lessons so their results could be compared to the schools that did.
The students will be surveyed twice a year, in September and April, about their extracurricular activities, stress levels and feelings toward their teachers, their classes and their overall experience in school. Researchers also will have access to their grade point averages and AP exam scores at the end of the year.
"Most of the kids who pursue this coursework and AP coursework (have) been successful in their previous eight years of school," Suldo said. "(They've) never received a bad grade, and most of them think they never will."
But the intense rigor of advanced high school classes, she added, "can leave some students wondering, 'Hey, what's different here? I thought I had all the tools I needed.'"
In Pinellas, about 8 percent of 1,500 ninth graders drop out of AP Human Geography courses district-wide, according to the district's director of advanced studies, Judith Vigue. About 50 students countywide left the IB program last year out of 366 freshmen, though the majority were pulled out by their parents.
Nicole Gallucci, the assistant principal for curriculum at Dunedin High, said she's noticed a big change among gifted students as they transition to high school.
"Academics came to them a little easier in eighth grade than ninth grade," where students are at a larger school with a different social setting and a more intense schedule, she said. "The kids get nervous, the parents get nervous when getting the A isn't as easy as it was."
Shaunessy-Dedrick and Suldo say the key for a successful year is to get involved in about 10 to 15 hours of extracurricular activities per week. Clubs and strong peer groups can make for great support systems, they said.
"The double bonus of being involved in extracurricular activities is they're learning to structure their time, plus they're learning to make those connections with peers and teachers and coaches," Suldo said.
USF conducted focus groups with students, teachers and parents of Strawberry Crest High in Dover in 2015 to collect feedback on the foundations of the curriculum. Tiffany Ewell, the school's IB coordinator and an assistant principal for magnet curriculum, said the best students over the years had a full plate during and outside of school.
"The research has shown they can handle it and in fact they thrive in that situation," Ewell said. "Some of our most successful students are the students that are involved in multiple things."
When time management wanes and procrastination takes over, inducing stress, USF's curriculum teaches students to cope with relaxation techniques like pausing to take a break, taking deep breaths and look for the positive in a situation for a personal pep talk.
A huge component of their research also hinges on students looking to teachers for support, rather than just information. Suldo says the lessons include establishing a solid relationship with a teacher at the beginning of high school so a student can turn to them for support in times of stress.
"For a ninth grader, that's a revolutionary idea that that relationship is a two-way street," Suldo said.
This is the third year of a four-year, $1.5 million federal grant. Next year, the program will be tweaked and the schools that didn't receive lessons from the researchers this year will get a more refined version of the curriculum.
"Hopefully these are skills that they are going to adopt and hopefully continue to use," Suldo said. "Not just in inquiry skills but throughout college coursework in high school in these accelerated classes."
Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.