Waco Independent School District’s Advanced Placement program is expanding, and the turnover rate for AP teachers is stable for the first time in recent years.

A new focus on the program is allowing the district to push past instruction focused on state accountability exams and expand in some areas to more rigorous learning, school officials said. Students in the classes, available at four campuses, are also able to pick up college credit along the way.

Part of the shift involves the district encouraging AP teachers to engage in national education conversations in ways they haven’t before, which brings in more opportunities for Waco ISD’s economically disadvantaged students, said Scott McClanahan, who oversees the AP program and is the interim executive director of secondary curriculum.

Of Waco ISD’s almost 15,000 students, more than 80 percent are economically disadvantaged.

Waco ISD’s teacher turnover rate has been 7 to 10 percent higher than the current state average of 16.5 percent since spring 2015, when McClanahan arrived, according to the Texas Education Agency’s Texas Academic Performance Report. And the district’s AP teacher turnover has been even higher, he said.

In his first year, the district had 15 AP teachers spread across two high schools and a junior high, and five teachers were changed to other positions that year.

“It was very unstable when I first started, because they were trying to look for the exact combination of teachers that would do well,” McClanahan said. “It doesn’t seem like there was a lot of steerage from the district perspective about what would make a good AP teacher. It was just, ‘Let’s try this person or let’s try that person.’ AP scores struggled because of that.”

There are now 21 AP teachers, and only three changed positions last year, he said.

The district’s AP offerings have grown from seven courses in 2015 to 17 courses this year, and the classes are now available at a second middle school campus.

The district now has 838 students in AP courses.

“We’re actually focusing on AP now, whereas before it was just kind of a program where we would stick a lot of kids in there and we didn’t really nurse it a lot,” McClanahan said. “We’ve had this very quantitative view of it, but didn’t look qualitatively at it.”

AP expansion has been helped by Waco ISD teachers receiving more academic support, he said. They are able to attend national AP essay reading conferences and summer institutes, receive mentoring, use software for blended learning models or test preparation models, and get professional development training to learn national standards for specific course work, McClanahan said.

The district has been able to build a base of continuity and quality, and its AP passing rate has more than doubled in the past two years, he said.

“Because (students) are focusing on this higher standard, the STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness exam) isn’t an issue,” McClanahan said. “Those kids are so well prepared for the STAAR because they’re working at such a higher level than that.”

University High School AP teachers Clark Nelson and Caitlyn Layman have been with the campus for five years. Layman has taught AP calculus and AP statistics since she started.

Nelson did not start as an AP teacher but now teaches pre-AP world geography and AP world history.

Nelson went to one of the national AP conferences last year, and Layman is signing up to go this year. Bringing what they learn back into their classrooms helps their students be more successful, they said.

“It’s been really positive. We’ve kind of set it up so I teach pre-AP world geography, then those students, we focus on getting them prepared to take AP world history the following year,” Nelson said. “A good chunk of those students I’m seeing two years in a row, which is providing continuity and stability, and they’re used to my classroom and expectations.”

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Clark Nelson

University High School AP teacher Clark Nelson talks with students Wednesday. He has been an AP teacher for four years and said he has seen the district’s support for AP education grow during that time.

McClanahan said officials hope an effort to win a $9 million grant to build an arts and humanities magnet school at Waco High would help further expand AP offerings there by six courses, including European history, comparative government, Chinese and Latin.

The U.S. Department of Education plans to make decisions on the grant by the end of the month, according to its website.

With more students having success in AP classes, it’s easy to see their confidence build and to see an opportunity for the district’s AP program to expand to other middle schools, McClanahan said.

“I taught AP when I taught at University, and we’ve definitely increased the quality of teaching since I’ve been here. But I never got those opportunities and never had those opportunities presented to me,” University High Principal Ricky Edison said of teachers attending the national AP conferences. “You find out Mr. Nelson has done that, and that Caitlyn’s going to do that, and it just excites you as a principal for your campus that you’re getting these things. The overall thing this impacts is the students … and they’re doing what’s best for students.”

Edison started as principal in the spring and has 20 years of experience in the education field.

Shelly Conlon has covered K-12 education for the Tribune-Herald since July 2016. Prior to the Tribune-Herald, she was the managing editor for the Waxahachie Daily Light, and an intern for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

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