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Advanced course offerings expand

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For years, students who were in high-ability programs were selected early in elementary school and given more advanced math and language arts lessons.

These students had shown their teachers that they had the ability to work more quickly than general education students and could understand concepts normally taught at higher grade levels.

Schools wanted to make sure these students reached their full potential, possibly attending colleges such as Notre Dame or Ivy league universities, so they provided advanced courses they could take until graduation.

To make sure the high-ability students could take as many rigorous courses as possible, general education students typically didn’t have a chance to take more advanced courses until they reached middle or high school and could sign up for honors and Advanced Placement courses.

Now, that is changing as schools find that more students are developing stronger reading skills and are able to complete more complex math problems. As more students are ready for a challenge, schools will need to find ways to give it to them, either by changing the number of teachers in different subjects or increasing the number of classes that blend traditional and online lessons.

“We’re confident that we’re identifying the right (high-ability) kids. But our desire is to open that pathway to more kids,” Clark-Pleasant director of curriculum and instruction Cameron Rains said.

At Clark-Pleasant, school officials are considering opening up advanced courses to more students starting in fifth grade. Greenwood also is adding more intensive, challenging courses at the middle school as more students, including those who were never a part of the high-ability program, have shown they can handle them.

About 6 percent of Clark-Pleasant’s more than 6,100 students have shown they have the potential to work ahead of their grade level. When those students get to middle and high school, they can take honors and Advanced Placement courses. If school officials offer more students the chance to take advanced courses earlier, then those students also might be interested in taking honors and Advanced Placement courses in middle and high school, Rains said.

To make these more challenging courses available to more students, Clark-Pleasant would need to figure out who would teach the classes. If, for example, 80 general education fifth-graders decide they want to do sixth-grade math alongside 80 high-ability fifth-graders, the school district will need to see if it has enough sixth-grade math teachers, Rains said.

Center Grove schools also has been updating its middle school science courses, adding two accelerated science courses for sixth- and seventh-graders this school year, while an eighth-grade honors biology course is planned for launch next school year.

Center Grove started reviewing and updating its middle school courses after parents raised concerns that the school district’s courses weren’t as rigorous as other school districts.

Not all school officials are sure that putting more students in advanced courses is the best idea.

School officials at Franklin and Greenwood are both cautious about giving general education students the chance to take courses designed for high-ability students, especially before the students have shown that they can handle the workload.

Teachers can’t lower the expectations of the class without hurting the advanced students that the course was designed for, and they want to be sure all students can keep up, Creekside Elementary School Principal Mark Heiden and Greenwood assistant superintendent Rick Ahlgrim said.

“We need to make sure we’re meeting the needs of all kids. And sometimes the utmost rigorous course is not in a student’s best interest,” Heiden said.

Greenwood schools have added more challenging classes in core subjects as more middle school students have been taking the courses without falling behind or having their grades drop.

That’s largely because over the past several years, elementary school teachers have gotten better at creating more individualized lessons for students, Ahlgrim said.

Ten years ago, a teacher typically created one lesson for their students, which might mean that two-thirds of the students understood what was taught. Now, teachers might create three sets of lessons — one for students working ahead, one for the ones who are behind and another for those who are on track. That helps students better understand what was taught and prepares them to take more challenging courses as they get older, Ahlgrim said.

Greenwood uses blended courses — classes that combine online and traditional lessons — for several of the middle school science courses. If school officials decide they need to add more rigorous courses, then those additional classes might need to be blended as well. That way students could use the online portions to work at their own pace, and the teachers would be free to help more students who need it, Ahlgrim said.

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