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Manatee County middle schools add pre-AP classes

The pre-Advanced Placement classes prepare students for more rigorous courses in high school.

Kylee Davis, an eighth grader at R. Dan Nolan Middle School, diligently works on a pre-AP World History and Geography assignment.
Kylee Davis, an eighth grader at R. Dan Nolan Middle School, diligently works on a pre-AP World History and Geography assignment.
Photo by Liz Ramos
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Jaimi Lowe guided students through a lesson on comparing the differences between taxi systems in London and Dubai. 

In this pre-Advanced Placement World History and Geography lesson, R. Dan Nolan Middle School students analyzed street maps and overview maps of each city to determine differences and the reason for them. 

The lesson encouraged students to think analytically and answer open-ended questions that don’t have absolute right or wrong answers. 

“I can’t wait to see what the kids bring to it because they see the world from a different point of view than I do,” Lowe said. “I’m looking forward to hearing their open-ended analysis of history and geography. The way the course is designed, it allows them to interpret for themselves, which is what I think is one of the cool things about (pre-AP).”

Pre-AP World History and Geography is one of two pre-AP courses being offered at Nolan Middle for the first time. 

The School District of Manatee County has a pilot program offering pre-AP courses at East County middle schools, allowing students to enroll in more rigorous classes. 

New opportunity

Knowing most Nolan students will go onto Lakewood Ranch, Braden River or Parrish Community high schools, which all offer AP courses, Cooper approached the School District of Manatee County about the possibility of adding pre-AP courses to middle schools. The addition was approved at the end of the 2022-2023 school year. 

Nolan and Haile middle schools offer pre-AP English and pre-AP World History and Geography while Braden River and Mona Jain middle schools only offer pre-AP World History and Geography. 

Cooper said having pre-AP World History and Geography is the first time the middle school is offering a high school social studies course at the middle school level.

Most schools were able to fill or nearly fill every seat available in the pre-AP courses, demonstrating the demand for them by parents and students. 

While the East County middle schools have honors courses, the pre-AP courses are a new option that will set them up to earn high school credits before they begin their freshman year while also preparing them to enroll in AP courses.

The pre-AP courses are open to students who meet certain requirements. For example, Cooper said students selected to enroll in pre-AP courses scored at least a three out of five on state testing. There also are discussions with the student’s previous teachers and parents about whether the course would be a good fit for the student.

“Some kids aren’t necessarily the best test takers but they’re really good students, so we don’t want them to necessarily miss out,” Cooper said. 

Valentina Mungo, Natalie Ghazarian and Kylee Davis, who are all eighth graders at R. Dan Nolan Middle School, are among the nearly 100 students enrolled in pre-AP World History and Geography.
Photo by Liz Ramos

Cooper and Erin Cox, the Advanced Studies Coordinator for the School District of Manatee County, said although the pre-AP courses are in certain subjects, the skills taught in the classes transfer to other areas. Students learn critical thinking and problem solving, how to use primary and secondary sources and analyze texts, all of which are beneficial no matter the subject. 

“This is the basis of what we want all of our kids to know and be able to do by the time they graduate,” Cox said. “These are workforce skills. These are academic skills. It’s imperative that all of our students are exposed to and practice critical thinking, problem solving, being able to find evidence and defend an argument and reading vigorous texts. Those are all skills that many people use on a daily basis whether it’s in the workplace or in an academic setting. The sooner we introduce those to our students, the better.”

Cox said pre-AP courses are not test prep courses for Advanced Placement. The courses will set the students up for success no matter what academic program they choose, such as AP, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge AICE. 

More choices

Crystal Rothhaar said having the pre-AP courses at Nolan and other East County middle schools means she doesn’t have to drive a long distance to have her daughter Allison, who is an eighth grader at Nolan, enrolled at another school that offers challenging academic programs. For example, Buffalo Creek Middle School has the Cambridge AICE program and Louise R. Johnson K-8 School of International Studies has the International Baccalaureate program. 

“It’s great that kids in East County will have an opportunity to have programs for advanced learning without having to drive to Sarasota or west Bradenton,” Rothhaar said. “When I was comparing schools for my daughter, I noticed some of the top schools in Sarasota and Bradenton were not offering the level of curriculum that is being offered at Nolan, so I’m happy my kids are going there and they’re being offered the opportunities they are.”

Cooper said having pre-AP courses at East County middle schools could entice more families to enroll their students at Nolan, Braden River, Mona Jain or Haile middle schools for school choice. 

“You want to make sure you have something for everybody,” he said. “We’ve always done a great job offering a variety of electives, but we never really focused on having an academic program to attract families and students who are looking for that option.”

Cooper said as a parent, he knows the difference a pre-AP course can make. His daughter Kaylee, who graduated from Braden River High School, didn’t have the opportunity to take pre-AP classes, which left her overwhelmed as she took her first AP class. 

“She struggled with it because it was just a whole different style of learning that she had to learn on-the-go,” he said. 

Dwight Porter Jr., an eighth grader at R. Dan Nolan Middle School and pre-AP World History and Geography student, looks at a map to see the different routes a taxi driver can go.
Photo by Liz Ramos

His daughter Brianna, a student at Parrish Community High School, was able to take a pre-AP course as a freshman at Parrish. 

“It helped her out tremendously,” he said of Brianna. “Her style of writing completely changed after that first year. She’s taking dual enrollment courses now, and she’s using all those skills that she learned in ninth grade still today.”

Cooper said having pre-AP courses in middle school eliminates the stigma that could come with dropping an AP course in high school. If a student isn’t succeeding in the pre-AP course, the student can move from the pre-AP class to an honors class or regular class. He said the schools don’t want students struggling in class and potentially entering high school with a lower GPA than they should. 

“We want to keep kids pushing forward and we want to keep raising the bar with them, but we also don’t want to burn them out at the same time,” he said. “There’s that fine line of that balance you’re trying to find between accelerating the kids and getting them ready for the next level but at the same time, letting them still be children and have fun in school.”

Jacob Sponsel, an assistant principal at Nolan and former AP teacher, wanted his son Matthew enrolled in the pre-AP classes to get an idea what will be expected of him if he enrolls in AP classes in high school.

“It’s important for a parent to be reassured if their student is overwhelmed, there’s always an option for them to bring relief to their student,” Sponsel said. “In the case of Matthew, I think the comfort comes from if it doesn’t work out here in eighth grade, next year we know where to place him in high school.”

Cox said the School District of Manatee County hopes to add more pre-AP courses at the middle school level in the future. 

Giving students the ability to earn more high school credits in middle school will allow students to explore more opportunities in high school, Cox said. With more space in their schedule to pursue AP courses earlier in their high school careers, students can earn more college credits, ultimately saving them money as they enroll in college. 

“Everything is about opportunity,” Cox said. “It’s also introducing students to some content areas they might not have been familiar with before, and they are going to have more opportunities to pursue those interests whether it’s in high school or in postsecondary.”



Liz Ramos

Liz Ramos covers education and community for East County. Before moving to Florida, Liz was an education reporter for the Lynchburg News & Advance in Virginia for two years after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism.

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