• Pre-AP Initiative Aims
    To Open Doors For Students

    Posted by Josh Flory on 2/20/2019
    Karns High School teacher John Cionfolo leads a discussion during an AP English Language and Composition class.
    Karns High School teacher John Cionfolo leads a discussion during an AP English Language and Composition class.

    As over-sized murals of William Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe looked on from the back wall, John Cionfolo’s students tackled a tricky subject on a December morning at Karns High School.

    Cionfolo’s AP English class was discussing an essay by Stephanie Ericsson called “The Ways We Lie,” and deconstructing her argument from several angles. One student highlighted Ericsson’s use of rhetorical questions, while another noted that the author acknowledged her own lies.

    “This makes it an ‘us’ issue, not a ‘you’ issue,” Cionfolo agreed.

    The discussion highlighted the deep-dive style that is common in Advanced Placement courses, which aim to provide college-level coursework in a high school classroom. But in the future, the benefits of AP-style courses and other rigorous academic tracks may be available to more KCS students.

    Last year, Karns and Farragut high schools were selected to join a “pre-AP” program that aims to significantly boost the number of students who are prepared for AP courses. They followed in the footsteps of Bearden High School, which in 2017 was one of only two schools in Tennessee -- and around 100 nationwide -- chosen to join the pre-AP pilot program.

    Shannon Jackson, the executive director of curriculum and instruction for KCS, said the three schools are trying to ensure that they are opening the door and pulling students in to rigorous coursework, rather than acting as gatekeepers who stand in the way. In doing so, the district is hoping they’ll develop strategies that can be shared across KCS.

    “We need more kids in our advanced and honors programs, not fewer,” she added.

    Practically speaking, the designation means that at Karns and Farragut, the entire freshman class that starts in 2019 will be trained in pre-AP strategies. That includes a significant focus on observation and discussion, as well as deep knowledge of content areas rather than surface-level information.

    Julie Langley, an ELA teacher at Karns who helped evaluate the pre-AP program, said there is often a dip in academic achievement in 9th grade, as students transition into a new school building. Langley said the pre-AP focus will help combat that “building shock”, and give students a viable path into AP coursework.

    “They may not opt into AP, but it won’t be because they don’t have the skills or because they don’t see themselves as an AP student,” she said. “The choice will be because of something else.”

    Advanced Placement courses aren’t the only pathways pursued by the district. West High School and Bearden Middle School both participate in the International Baccalaureate program, which combines rigorous coursework with a focus on intercultural understanding and respect.

    Since 2015, administrators at West have made a concerted effort to address a lack of diversity within the IB program, and to promote broader participation.

    Shannon Siebe, the district IB facilitator, said that in past years there was little racial or socio-economic diversity within the program. Siebe has helped lead a push to change that, in part by scheduling IB meetings in every English class at West to explain the program and raise awareness about it.

    Administrators also reviewed the test scores of 9th graders to look for students who had the ability to succeed in IB courses but were not enrolled. Armed with that data, they scheduled one-on-one meetings with about 40 students, including a phone call to their parent, to encourage them to enroll.

    Since then, Siebe said, the rate of minority participation in IB courses has come to closely match the overall demographics of West, and around 75 percent of junior and senior students are enrolled in an IB class.

    Siebe said the school has repeatedly heard from students who say that encouragement from a teacher made the difference in their decision to take the advanced classwork. “What we have found, by and large, is that if you tell a student you believe in them and that’s where you think they should go, they’ll do it and they’ll try,” she said.

    And whether it’s IB coursework, pre-AP programs or another avenue for rigorous instruction, the district is hoping to create more pathways for students to participate.

    Jackson, the KCS executive director of curriculum and instruction, said that in some cases students who are struggling with behavior issues may simply be bored.

    “Kids develop in maturity at much different rates,” she said. “And so kids might not all be ready at the same time … They may not be identified early, but as they mature and as they develop those prerequisite skills, it’s important to have multiple on-ramps for kids so they can engage at the point at which they are ready.”