Cobb grooms middle school students for college-level coursework

Matt McMullen is only in the eighth grade, but he’s already plotting the courses he’ll take when he gets to Pope High School.

The ambitious 13-year-old plans to attend Georgia Tech and become an inventor. He’s been taking upper-level courses since sixth grade and figures he’ll need more in high school. In Cobb County and other metro Atlanta districts, a popular option is enrolling in Advanced Placement courses, which offer college-level study at the high school level.

“[Colleges] look at your grades and the classes you’re taking to see if you’re right for the curriculum they’re teaching,” said Matt, who attends Hightower Trail Middle School. “I want to take the harder classes because I am looking for what’s best for my future.”

From 2004 to 2010, Cobb increased participation in Advanced Placement courses by 182 percent, from 2,501 students to 7,063. The increases are even higher for black and Hispanic students. District officials say one of the reasons for the gains is expanded access to upper-level courses at the middle school level.

In 2004, the district decided to make gifted-level middle school classes open to more students, not just those classified as gifted based on state criteria, said Kathleen Busko, supervisor for advanced learning programs in grades 6-12. As a result, the district has seen a 569 percent increase in the number of ninth-graders enrolling in Advanced Placement courses from 2004 to 2010, going from 116 students to 777.

“What we found is if you don’t set the goal for students, they don’t see themselves as AP students, so you want to start creating that vision in their mind,” Busko said.

Around the country, school districts place an emphasis on Advanced Placement courses because studies show they are a good indicator of college success. The faster pace and more challenging coursework is considered good preparation for what’s in store at the university level.

Busko said Cobb wants all students to have at least one AP class before going to college. And that means grooming them for advanced work at the middle school level.

“In middle schools the game is trying to get students to accept greater challenge, and helping them feel confident they can perform when challenged,” Busko said.

Other area districts such as Fulton and Gwinnett also put emphasis on advanced learning in the middle grades.

Fulton uses similar guidelines for qualifying gifted students and offers advanced classes in several core subjects to all students. In Gwinnett, middle school students can take accelerated courses in language arts, math, science and social studies, said spokeswoman Sloan Roach. Students also can enroll in online summer courses to prepare for upper-level math classes.

“We support students who may not have traditionally taken advanced courses through additional instructional time, such as Connections classes that preview more difficult content before it is taught in the regular class,” Roach said.

Advanced Placement courses are a trademarked brand offered by the College Board, a New York-based nonprofit. The company offers an official AP-prep program for grades 6-12 called SpringBoard, which is being used in almost 1,000 schools nationwide. Elite Scholars Academy Charter School in Jonesboro is the only metro Atlanta school using the program, according to a College Board spokeswoman.

To prep its students for Advanced Placement courses, Cobb expanded access to an upper-level program for middle schoolers called Advanced Content, and began talking to students more about the importance of AP courses.

The coursework challenges students to think more in-depth about a subject and explain it in detail. For example, students enrolled in regular math class will solve word problems, while advanced students will go one step further and create word problems of their own.

Rather than limiting advanced courses to students who test as gifted, many Cobb schools now look at other factors such as CRCT scores and grade averages, said Hilda Wilkins, principal at Hightower Trail Middle. Sixty percent of students in that school are enrolled in advanced classes.

“We want to take children where they are and push as far as they can go so when they get to the ninth grade options are open to them and they won’t be afraid of AP," Wilkins said. “[In middle school], they’re not in a race for valedictorian. So we have that one last chance to get far as we can with no gaps in learning.”