WESLEY CHAPEL — Andy Frelick worries that some of his school's brightest students might not be as competitive as they can be.
The problem, he said, is Wesley Chapel High School's relative lack of Advanced Placement courses.
"If our kids are college-bound and they're going to compete with other students … they need to have AP on their transcript," said Frelick, the school's principal since 1999.
Honors courses often don't cut it, he said, as the curriculum frequently varies little from the nonhonors version. AP, Frelick says, has tough, college-level national syllabus standards and a national test to gauge student success.
That's why Wesley Chapel High is moving away from honors courses for language arts and social studies classes, and diving headfirst into Advanced Placement. This year, for example, 30 students are taking junior-level AP English. Next year, that number will rise to 115, with the rest of the honors English students slated for dual enrollment at Pasco-Hernando Community College as the honors course disappears.
Wesley Chapel won't be alone in its move.
Hudson High, Gulf High and the new Anclote High also plan to abandon many honors courses in favor of Advanced Placement. And they aim to get more students to enroll in them, ones who in the past have not considered taking tougher courses.
The goal is to enhance the school district's emphasis on college preparedness, said Angie Murphy, district secondary curriculum supervisor.
"We're not talking about every kid going to college," Murphy said. "We're talking about post-secondary opportunities. You still need all of the skills that someone who is going to college needs."
Yet for the past several years, Pasco's student participation in Advanced Placement has been too low, she said.
Just 18 percent of eligible high school students have taken the courses, with both black and Hispanic students underrepresented in the mix. Part of the issue was a lack of availability — Hudson High, for instance, offered just three AP courses serving 60 students this year.
Next year, Hudson plans to provide 10 AP courses to about 450 students.
Pasco's heightened attention to Advanced Placement comes amid a push across Florida and the nation to increase the rigor of class work that all high school students take, not just the top achievers. Many educators say that even if students don't earn a passing score on their AP exams, which can get them college credit, they still gain the knowledge of how higher-level courses work and, increasingly, the confidence to rise to higher expectations.
By accelerating students' abilities, some say, students will enter college not needing remedial attention as so many teens now require. But others say that by pushing too many students into AP, the program could be watered down.
The road to success, Murphy said, comes in part by instilling such confidence earlier in a student's schooling career, so he or she will be ready for the more challenging content and tougher demands.
That's why Pasco also is working with the College Board, which administers Advanced Placement, to create a pre-AP program that filters into middle schools. The first training involved an in-depth review of how teachers instruct students about grammar at each grade level.
"This type of curriculum really engages kids," said Murphy, a former AP teacher. "But it's kids who are prepared."
That in mind, Wesley Chapel High has started offering one freshman-level Advanced Placement course — human geography — so its younger students can experience the more difficult AP course work before launching into a full AP schedule.
"I want to raise the bar, but I don't want anybody to sink along the way," Frelick said.
He expects teachers to work in teams to create a consistent teaching system and to make it easier for them to provide the more challenging courses. He also expects to have to kick some students into high gear, for their own good.
He said as much when talking to students about the changes to the English honors program.
"I told the kids when I met with them, there is the tendency at this age to take the path of least resistance," Frelick said. "Sometimes, they need to be pushed."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.