Pasco County named top AP school district

The recognition is based on improvement in student participation and performance, especially among underrepresented groups.
Pasco County schools have won top honors from College Board for improved participation and performance in AP courses and exams.
Pasco County schools have won top honors from College Board for improved participation and performance in AP courses and exams.
Published May 28, 2020|Updated May 28, 2020

Before entering Zephyrhills High School, Eternity Faison had found regular classes too easy and honors courses only a bit better.

What she really wanted, she said, was something more. With teachers’ support, Faison found her way into Advanced Placement.

“When I first stepped foot in the class, they told me it’s challenging,” the rising senior recalled. “They also said, ‘You’re here for a reason and we’re glad to have you.'”

With that encouragement, Faison began her way down the path that her parents wanted but didn’t necessarily know how to pursue. Many other Pasco County teens followed a similar trajectory.

Now the school district has been recognized for its effort to improve student participation and performance in AP courses and exams. It is the College Board Advanced Placement District of the Year among systems of 50,000 or more students, the second Florida district in a decade to receive the honor.

“This is a big deal,” Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning said.

He praised the students for their efforts in the college-level courses, and also the more than 200 AP teachers and school leaders for changing their approach about how to identify students to enroll into the classes. In recent years, the district contracted with Equal Opportunity Schools to create a method to not only bring in teens from traditionally underrepresented groups, but also to support them so they won’t simply sign up and struggle.

The district reports having increased the percentage of minority students earning a 3 or higher on an AP test by 2 percent annually since 2017. Its overall participation has increased by 8.3 percent since 2018, according to the district, while 60 percent of all AP students earned a 3 or higher on at least one exam in 2019.

About a decade ago, by contrast, the district struggled to have a meaningful AP program in several of its schools.

“The students we’re selecting to put in these courses should be in these courses,” district AP coordinator Kristin Ingold said, noting that many simply had not been offered the opportunity in the past.

A big factor in the change has been the move away from looking at student test scores and grades in determining access to AP, said Samantha Del Valle, district assistant director of leading and learning. Instead, teachers identified students by the characteristics that mark success in such programs, such as perseverance and critical thinking.

Given the support of their teachers, and the removal of barriers, the success comes naturally, Del Valle said.

Trevor Packer, who oversees AP for College Board, praised the district for its accomplishments.

“Pasco is ensuring that a more diverse population of students is earning college credit in a wide variety of AP subjects,” Packer said in a statement.

It’s important to note, though, that that the award is not the end point, Ingold said, calling it instead a “mile marker in our equity goal.”

“We don’t want to get to the point where we think we have achieved all that we can achieve,” Browning added, noting that some schools are not as far along in participation or course offerings as others. “We always need to identify students who need to take AP.”

Faison, the Zephyrhills High student, agreed that the program helps teens to a higher level. She said she would encourage others to participate.

“AP classes set you up to know how hard it can be, and how easy it can be if you put your mind to it,” she said.

She and classmate Taija McCullough said they know even more teens could benefit from the program, if willing to do that work.

“If you put in the time and effort,” McCullough said, “the reward is worth it.”