|By Billy Davis
South Panola high school students can expect to dig a little deeper in their textbooks as school leaders map plans for more challenging course work.
To prepare students for the coming changes, high school principal Dr. Gearl Loden met with students and parents Monday, September 12, to announce a more rigorous curriculum in Advanced Placement (AP) courses.
A similar meeting is planned for next Monday, September 27, for students enrolled in the high school’s accelerated classes.
In a high school setting, AP courses are the school’s most challenging college-prep courses. Students typically enroll in AP courses their senior year.
At South Panola High, the AP courses offered are U.S. government, U.S. History, English III and English IV, and calculus.
Students who take AP courses take a final exam that gauges their knowledge of the subject. A high score on the final test allows students to skip introductory courses in college.
Accelerated courses are second-tier classes, just beneath AP courses but more rigorous than standard subjects.
Few SPHS students are scoring well enough on their AP exams to receive credit, Loden said, and that problem has lead to the revamping of the courses and the recent meeting with students and their parents.
A similar re-evaluation of the accelerated courses is also in the works.
"We’ve found that many of the young people go through AP and accelerated courses and still struggle in college," Loden said. "It’s not supposed to work that way."
At the high school, the quest for upper-level academics is rather lackluster: the school dropped AP courses in Spanish and physics this year due to a lack of interest from students.
"We had three to four kids sign up for each class," Loden said.
A lingering problem, the principal said, is the "rite of passage" that seniors take a half-day of classes, choosing a short school day over courses that can boost their ACT score, improve their chance for a scholarship and better their college GPA.
The AP test records a score from one to five, with five being the top grade and a definite qualification for future college credit.
Loden said some high schools across the state quietly encourage only their best students to take the AP exam, which results in an average 40-percent passage rate across the state.
Loden said the leading AP scorers in the state come from a private Jackson school, St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, where 50 percent of the AP students on average attain college credit.
At South Panola, Loden said, he will encourage every AP student to take the exam and has set a goal that 30 percent of them score high enough to receive college credit.
Loden, 36, started his principal’s job at the high school this summer. He was a finalist in the school district’s search for a superintendent and was hand-picked by the eventual top pick, Dr. Keith Shaffer, to improve the academic record at the high school.
The quest for a more rigorous curriculum is only one piece of the academic puzzle, Loden said, since some students struggle with the basics in math, English and other subjects.
The high school is addressing its struggling students, too, beginning with a meeting held earlier this summer with students and their parents.
South Panola is also spreading the word about its free after-school tutorial sessions. Now under way, teachers are helping students in English, math, science and social studies.
The tutorial sessions are scheduled from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. each Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. Students can rotate to a second hour-long class or just take the first hour-long session.
An after-school snack and a free bus ride home is provided to students who use the tutorial service, Loden said.
"The tutorials are for every student, whether they’re trying to pass a class or stretch a B into an A," Loden said.
Loden said the high school is working to improve its communication with parents about important dates, such as the November 16 "Plan Test" that gauges students’ strengths and weaknesses before they take the ACT.
Still another upcoming test is the PSAT on October 12. A first step for 11th graders taking the SAT their senior year, the PSAT is a requirement for juniors who hope to be named a National Merit Finalist as a senior.
"Nobody can remember the last time South Panola had a National Merit Finalist," Loden said.