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Pinellas teachers learn how to help struggling AP students

If you want to see the new reality facing Advanced Placement teachers, peek into Tim Hinz's classroom at Clearwater High.

Hinz teaches four classes of AP World History to about 100 students. Some are super bright, but others aren't reading at grade level. Many can't write decent essays.

In the past, Hinz said, he just had to shape his students' writing style a bit, not teach the basics.

"Now it's, 'this is a sentence, this is a paragraph,' " he said. "It's hard."

The Pinellas school district is feeling Hinz's pain. And determined to get him help.

This week, Hinz and about 30 other AP teachers sat in on six hours of training workshops with a consultant and heard this message: You can reach all kinds of AP kids in the same class.

"But you can't do it the way you've always taught AP," said Robyn Jackson, a former AP teacher from Washington D.C.

Jackson shared techniques aimed at boosting the "soft skills" that many unprepared AP student don't have — like how to closely read a text, or focus quickly, or think more critically.

The district wants to improve its success rate with those students. And over the last two years, it has ramped up its training for AP teachers so they can hopefully do just that.

"It is a lot of work" for teachers, said Bill Lawrence, who oversees the district's AP program. "But it is what we have to do to get kids prepared for that next phase."

AP courses, which are considered college caliber, were once limited to top notch students. But enrollment in Florida has quadrupled over the past decade as the state has made AP a key part of high school reform efforts.

Supporters say the rising numbers of students taking and passing standardized AP tests is a good thing, particularly for poor and minority students. But critics, pointing to falling passing rates, fear AP courses are being dumbed down.

A handful of AP teachers interviewed after this week's workshops said they were not watering down their classes. But they were quick to note the new challenges.

"Some of the writing is just horrendous," said Mike Klapka, an AP U.S. History teacher at Largo High. "So many of them come in and they're going, 'What? I have to write?' "

"The textbook is a college-level textbook," said Lauren Hansell, an AP Biology teacher at Pinellas Park High. "Some of them are on the lower end (of reading scores). There's a little bit more of a struggle for them."

Jackson, the consultant, said there are ways AP teachers can beef up those skills at the same time they're teaching content. She said she knows from experience. When she taught AP English, she said, she tripled enrollment in one year without seeing a drop in test scores.

"I don't believe the doors (of AP access) can ever be opened too wide," she said.

On Thursday, Jackson outlined specific exercises — like "interrupted reading" and "exam stacks" — that can shore up soft skills in "average" students but can challenge the brightest kids, too.

"The focus shouldn't just be on how do I support the kids who come under-prepared," she said during a break. "It should also be on how do I help kids who are over-prepared, who are ready to take it further."

Jackson's consulting firm, Mindsteps Inc., is being paid $23,000 for a series of workshops.

The teachers at this week's workshops are expected to share what they learned with other AP teachers at their schools. They'll also post their critiques and modifications of Jackson's strategies on the district's Moodle site, so other teachers can read about them.

Some liked what they heard.

"Really good stuff," said Hinz, the Clearwater High teacher. "Everything she's given us we can adapt to what we're doing."

But they also realize there is trial-and-error ahead.

"You want to make sure you're not displacing curriculum," Klapka, the Largo High teacher, said about some of the techniques. "It's a balancing act."

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Pinellas teachers learn how to help struggling AP students 01/22/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 22, 2010 11:06pm]
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