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Advanced Placement in jeopardy

MANATEE — There are no desks in Michelle McCarthy’s Advanced Placement English classes at Manatee High.

Instead, her students make themselves at home on several couches. But don’t expect them to doze off.

Most of McCarthy’s students are on a fast track to college, and they all know it. After all, many of them elected to take classes such as hers, where they are asked to do a lot of independent reading and analysis.

But AP courses such as McCarthy’s face funding cuts from state lawmakers.

The Florida Senate’s budget proposal calls for decreasing funding for training and instructional materials — which state lawmakers also trimmed last year — by half, and to pare down the teacher bonus to $40per student who scores higher than a three on the AP exam. The House budget does not decrease AP funding. The two chambers will have to hash out a compromise budget.

The reimbursement received by the district for students who pass the AP exam could drop from $800,000 to $400,000 in one year, warns Jim Drake, Manatee schools’ assistant superintendent of finances.

The cuts proposed by the Senate could severely restrict a Florida school district’s ability to buy books and supplies, and to train teachers.

In Manatee, many AP teachers will be retiring in the next few years and the slashed budget could hamper training new ones, district officials say. With the district’s tightened operating budget, principals have to think hard about offering classes where only a dozen students have signed up.

“Our schedule continues to be driven by the need of our students,” said Bob Gagnon, Manatee High’s principal. “But in the future, I am uncertain how long that could continue.”

The timing is frustrating, at best. Schools want to ramp up their AP offerings to score higher on the grading system that lawmakers signed off on last spring, intended to result in better-rounded grades less dependent on the FCAT.

Starting next year, school grades will take into account graduation rates, attendance rates, students’ scores on college-entrance exams and enrollment in AP and other rigorous courses, instead of mostly being based on ninth- and 10th-grade FCAT scores.

“It’s puzzling,” said Manatee School Board member Harry Kinnan. “On one hand, we want more rigor and the state wants more rigor on course offerings. On the other hand, there’s a punitive side to offering these AP courses.”

AP courses earn credits

In the past few years, more and more students in Manatee have signed up to take Advanced Placement tests.

College Board studies have shown that AP students do better in college, even if they don’t score higher on the AP exam, and tend to graduate in four years, resulting in savings for the families — and the state.

The board also reported that Florida has one of the fastest-growing rates of students taking AP exams in the country, a 93 percent increase in the past five years.

Sixty-three percent of the Florida students who took the tests passed last year, compared to 50percent nationwide. In 2005, 870 11th- and 12th-grade students in Manatee took AP tests, and the number shot up to 1,363 in 2008, according to the Florida Department of Education.

In Manatee, 1,397 high school students are enrolled in AP classes. Collectively, they will be sitting for 2,330 AP exams next month, which could help them earn college credits.

Manatee and Lakewood Ranch high schools have some of the highest number of students enrolled in AP classes, totaling 639 students. Bayshore High has 65 students signed up for AP courses, and many others have opted to go with the school’s dual enrollment program at Manatee Community College. Many of Southeast High’s International Baccalaureate students are also taking AP classes.

The state covers the cost of the exam, which is $86 per test, said Tom Zellars, assistant principal and AP coordinator for Lakewood Ranch High. The reimbursement the district gets from the state for passing students is used to pay for books, language tapes or any other resources students may need in the advanced classes.

Some of the money also goes directly to schools.

“When Braden River High opened up, they had no funds to start an AP program,” said Shirley Hurley, the district’s coordinator of guidance who oversees Manatee schools’ AP programs. “Some of the money went to them, as seed money to purchase books.”

The state also rewards teachers with a $50 bonus for each student who scores a three or higher on the AP exam, which is graded on a five-point scale.

If the Florida’s Senate budget proposal passes, the bonus would be lowered by $10 and capped at $1,600 instead of $2,000.

Teachers such as McCarthy say they don’t really care about the bonus.

“It’s just sprinkles on a cake,” she said. “I do it for the students.”

Tough, but popular

Bright, college-bound students tend to flock toward Advanced Placement classes.

There’s a big difference between honors classes and AP classes, they say, and many of McCarthy’s students say they prefer the latter.

Tura Magley, a senior, has taken both and appreciates the rigor in AP. She plans to attend Florida State University, and major in psychology and business.

“We are responsible for our work,” she said. “In honors classes, you’re still guided. ...The challenge is of such a different caliber.”

AP teachers are also expected to deliver at a higher level.

Not only does McCarthy attend training sessions held by the College Board, she submits her course syllabus to the board to be audited each year.

“I don’t like to teach the same thing every year,” she said.

The training and audit help maintain the quality of the courses, Hurley said. Though the College Board does not require mandatory training, it recommends that teachers attend summer training at least every three years.

“The training piece is huge,” she said. “We have good teachers in district, and they will do what they have to do, but having the tool and strategies taught at the summer institute is such a vital piece to the success of our AP programs.”

The training also helps expand the pool of teachers who can help replace the older AP teachers who are getting ready to retire in the next few years, she said.

“We have a number of AP teachers in district for a while, but if we don’t have enough funds to train teachers, it could affect us that way,” Hurley said.

With the district seeing a stagnant student enrollment in a tight budget year, many school administrators have to rethink whether to offer an AP physics class or AP art history class if only a few students register.

“Each unit is valuable. ...Our (teacher) allocations are shrinking,” said Gagnon, of Manatee High. “We can’t offer a class if only 12 kids need it because of declining allocation.”

Fewer AP courses also might adversely affect how colleges view Manatee County’s graduates.

“Most colleges are looking at how many AP courses students take,” said Trish Hermans, whose son is a junior at Manatee High. “If they (the cuts) limit the students’ choices, that is a concern because you are not going to be able to pick the colleges that are very competitive.”

Manatee High senior Stephen Scott can’t understand why state lawmakers would want to scale down funding for AP.

“They should increase funding for it,” Scott said. “I am definitely a proponent of getting funding to achievers in schools.”

Magley agrees.

“I don’t believe it’s something that should be taken away. It prepares your for college and it challenges you,” she said.

— This report includes material from The Miami Herald.

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