Does OCPS Force Students to take AP Classes? Fitzpatrick Shares What He Knows

My name is Matthew J. Fitzpatrick, and I am running for Orange County School Board Chair. I am currently an Assistant Director at Orange Technical College. I have been in education for 25 years -- 12 years as a teacher, and 13 years as a school and district administrator. I am running because I believe we need people who understand education on the School Board. A person cannot supervise something they do not understand. I recently had a phone conversation with Mayor Teresa Jacobs when she called me to let me know that she was entering the race. I welcomed her to the race. I talked with the Mayor for 26 minutes about some of the education issues that are very important to me...important enough to run for a job that represents a 50% pay cut. One of those important issues is our school district's practice of forcing high school students to take AP classes.

As a former Assistant Principal of Instruction at Apopka High School, I have supervised Student Services and worked with Professional School Counselors to schedule students into classes for the following year. I understand what happens in the background regarding how students are scheduled. In recent years, there has been a major push from the district office to schedule students in AP classes. The school district pays for and administers the PSAT to all students in grades 8th through 11th in order to establish an AP Potential rating for students. If a student scores high enough on the test, they are automatically scheduled into AP classes, regardless of whether or not they want an AP class. Getting out of these AP classes isn't easy. School Counselors have to document if someone with a high enough AP Potential score isn't scheduled in an AP class...or even multiple AP classes. I brought this up to the Mayor as we were talking about the important issues in our School District. I was surprised by the Mayor's response.

Mayor Jacobs responded by saying that she had heard of this situation from high school students last year when she was hosting students at her youth leadership conference at Rollins College. At the end of the day, the Mayor provides the students with an opportunity to give her feedback about their schools and what’s important to them. This year, the students said that school safety was an important concern--the conference took place two weeks after the Parkland school shooting. Last year, the big issue the students mentioned was that they wished they didn’t have to take so many AP classes. These were high achieving students who were being forced by their schools to take multiple AP classes, some even 5 or 6 AP classes. This statement by the Mayor further confirmed why this practice of forcing students to take AP classes is a major campaign issue for me.

I am not only hearing this from parents, teachers, counselors, and students, I also experienced this as a parent when my daughter attended Apopka HS. My daughter only wanted to take 3 AP classes during her senior year, but she was scheduled by “the system” to take 5 AP classes. She didn’t want to take that many AP classes—some were in subject areas she was not interested in, others would have required excessive amounts of time that would have taken away from her passion for art. Even crazier, the AP Portfolio class she wanted wasn't on her schedule because it conflicted with two other AP classes she would have been forced into. That is simply crazy. Fortunately, I still had enough school connections to make sure that this didn’t happen, but how many students don’t have those same connections?

Should we really be squeezing our students for every drop of “acceleration points” to improve school and district grades? Is this what’s best for students? I understand why the district is pursuing such an intense initiative to enroll more students in AP classes—I get it, under the state's current system, school grades are important. But are school grades more important than the mental and physical development and health of our students? Does the state know about the madness they are creating within school districts. In my opinion, schools and districts are under so much pressure that they will do anything to improve their school grades, even sacrificing the mental and physical well being of their students. I've seen this take place with my own eyes.

School and district leaders may argue that challenging students to take AP classes is good for them in order to prepare them for college work. They will also explain that taking AP classes looks great on your transcripts when you apply to colleges. The next time someone says that, ask them how many students fail AP classes, and how many students end up taking a recovery class online or in the summer to make up the credit. Ask for the data. While you're at it, ask them for the data on how many students want to get out of AP classes and are told, "No!" It would be nice if schools kept this kind of information in order to be data-driven in their practices for scheduling. Are we really serving our students, or are the students serving the system to produce good school grades? One Principal even asked students to sit for AP tests in classes they weren't even scheduled for in order to help the property values of their school zone. Is that why students should stress themselves out in order to take five or six AP classes--squeezing every last drop of acceleration points out of them because the property values in their area need their blood, sweat, toil, and tears? What kind of system are we creating. This is no longer about the students.

One parent told me that her daughter was doing poorly in her AP class, and she was suffering from depression as a result. She called the Principal to get help, but the Principal still has not called her back, and it's been over two months from the time when she reached out to get her daughter’s class changed. Principals have a lot going on, and I imagine they are getting a lot of phone calls like the one this parent made. Principals can’t allow students to get out of AP classes—if one student gets out, word travels fast, and then you have 50% of the class wanting to get out. On top of that, there are no classes to put these students into, unless the struggling student wants to drop to a remedial class because the few honors classes that are offered are full—-and believe me, they’re full. The students have to stay put at least until the semester break when the school counselors can shuffle and shift the master schedule--moving students and teachers around to adjust for all the students that want to drop out of AP. I hope we are telling students upfront that they won’t be let out of these classes if they crash and burn...this upfront information may not be a good selling point, but it’s the truth.

Schools have also been instructed to require students who want to get out of an AP class to attend tutoring in order to receive “help". Offering tutoring is a great gesture by the school district and school, but it is also a way to make students jump through hoops in order to earn the right to get out of an AP class. This is called slow-rolling a student until the beginning of the 2nd semester, when counselors can actually shift the master schedule. I imagine a similar scene from the movie Get Out, when a potential AP student visits an AP class, and one of the ”trapped” students tells them, “Get Out!” (You have to see the movie to understand.)

At what point do we become liable for convincing students they need to at least “try” tougher classes, and then we don’t let them out when they are crashing and burning--both mentally and academically. If we are going to “force” the student into such a class, we should at least be more responsive when a student cries for help and needs a way out. A student in an AP class should never get an “F”, but that’s what happens on a frequent basis when you schedule by “AP Potential” rather than allowing the professional school counselor to work with the student to find the best schedule based on the student’s interests, out-of-school commitments, extracurricular pursuits, career goals, work ethic, etc.

Forcing students into AP classes also has an impact on the rigor and instruction an AP teacher is able to offer the rest of the students in their classes, especially when 50% of the class wants out of the class? It’s one thing for the teacher to find ways to help students who want to take an AP class, but it’s a different ballgame when a teacher is trying to help students who don’t want to be there, all the while offering college-level instruction to the other students. How long can a teacher keep all of these plates spinning? It amazes me that we force students into classes they didn't want to take, and then we blame the teacher if the student doesn't succeed. That's a quick way to destroy a teacher's morale.

Do we ever stop to think about how much it scrambles a child’s life when they end up failing the first semester of an AP class, and then they have to juggle an online class with their other 7 classes during the 2nd semester in order to stay on track for graduation? All of these things come into play when the state adjusts the school grade criteria, and then districts adjust their strategies to meet the new standards. Schools and district can’t afford to just stand back and hope that students take AP classes to help improve the school grades—they have to intensely pursue squeezing every potential acceleration point out of their students, and sadly, many students get caught in the middle and end up paying the price for the school grade. The price isn’t just failing an AP class...the price is also losing the opportunity for high achieving students to pour their energy into the things that actually interest them and fit into their career goals. Isn’t that what school , especially high school, is all about?

I've heard some terrible stories about how we are scheduling students for their classes, even enrolling all freshmen into AP Human Geography. That's madness. if you want to read further about this situation, you can read the comments to my original post on my Facebook page--Matthew Fitzpatrick. You will see the reality of how crazy we have become as a school district regarding AP classes. This is just one issue...I have sever other issues that I will be bring up during my campaign to be the next Orange County School Board Chair. If I am elected to the Chair position, one of my short term goals is to end the practice of forcing students to take AP classes. I will make this clear on day one. I hope the practice ends long before the next school year.

I direct this question to our current school board members, including Nancy Robbinson. Are you aware that this is happening? If you are aware, and you haven’t done anything to advocate for the numerous students who are failing and frazzled in AP classes--classes they didn’t ask for--then I have to conclude that you really don’t care. If you’re not aware of this situation, then I must conclude that you don’t understand what is really going on in our schools or the school system you claim to supervise. You cannot supervise something you don't understand.

We don’t need more politicians who don’t understand education...we have enough of those at the state level, and they are actively killing the love of learning in our students. We don’t need four more years of the same kind of uninformed, political leadership on the board. We need someone who understands what’s going on so that the Superintendent and the School District can be resisted and held accountable for this nonsense.

The person who leads our school board should be the person who understands the most about the current state of education in our school district. The person who leads our school board should also be the person who cares the most about students. I believe I understand far more about education than my political opponents, and I’m also running for a 50% pay cut if I win this election, so I think I have a good argument for caring about students. The reason my pay will be cut is the fact that I can’t sit on the board and work for the school district at the same time. I will have to resign as an Assistant Director for Orange Technical College if I win. I love my current job, but I am willing to scramble my life because education is my passion. I am driven to help students and teachers succeed. My interest in this position as chair on the school board has nothing to do with political ambition.

Back to the conversation with the Mayor...

The Mayor and I talked about a number of other issues. It was a good conversation. If I don’t win this race, I at least want the eventual winner to understand many of the critical, underlying issues that are affecting students, teachers, and schools. I want to win this election, but real change is even more important than winning an election. Someone commented that I shouldn't give away all of my secrets to my opponents. Listen, these things shouldn't be secrets. I hope my opponents start talking about the things I bring up. The issues I bring up are affecting students and teachers...they need change.

The Mayor and I agreed to talk more throughout the campaign. I let the Mayor know, just as I let Nancy Robbinson know, I’m not running against her as much as I’m running for ideas...and to highlight important issues that need to be talked about and changed in order to create the very best schools for our students. The Mayor thanked me for caring about students and teachers, and then the 26 minute conversation was over. The phone call was a really nice gesture by the Mayor...I wish I would have called the other candidates running for Orange County School Board Chair when I entered the race. It was a professional gesture I will extend in the future.

That’s how our 26 minute conversation went...

If you would like to read more about my campaign, or if you would like to donate online to help me get my message out, please click the link to my website.

A Sampling of Comments from my Original Post:

"As an AP Lit teacher, I COMPLETELY agree. Academic rigor must not take precedence over a child's well-being. I never let my kids take more than 3 AP classes. I want them to go out with their friends and actually enjoy their extracurricular activities (rather than stressing about how to fit it all in). I teach some ridiculously competitive students who actively fill their school day with AP classes, while taking even more online. If a kid really feels intrinsically driven to do this, so be it. However, it seems to stem more from their desperation to be in the top 10 than from their desire to learn the material. I have students who won't take electives in areas they love because they're unweighted. This breaks my heart☹️. School should be about teaching the WHOLE child--not just weighted GPA's and AP scores. I tell my students, 'I want you to love this class, read things that stick with you, and feel like you're a bit of a better person at the end. If you also pass the AP test, that's a bonus.' "

"Great article. My niece (in Palm Beach County) is experiencing the same problem with so many AP classes. She is stressed and has no time for activities outside the realm of school work. So glad that the message is getting out there that there has to be a change. Good luck."

"Yes, yes, yes about the AP Potential stuff. Even kids who've failed or struggled in previous AP classes are "supposed" to be put in AP classes based on this practice. Also add to this the over scheduling of too many 7th graders in Algebra 1 based only on FSA scores, when many of them are really not ready for the course, setting them up to struggle in future math courses."

"Appropriately-selected AP courses are great for college admissions. Loading kids down with all-AP schedules because “that’s what colleges want” is ridiculous. Forcing kids into AP for acceleration points is bordering on educational malpractice."

"Several of my students are frustrated with this very thing. They feel overwhelmed and dislike school instead of pursuing their goals. We are putting our goals ahead of theirs."

"This exactly what my child is dealing with right now. We we're promised she would get help at every curve, but have not seen said help. Now she's retaking her AP course in summer school in hopes of recovering the credits. I've already received a letter about her taking AP classes again next year. I've already talked with her & we've agreed that unless it's a subject she truly cares for, honor classes are more than okay. OCPS is not the only county guilty of this practice..."

"This has been one of my biggest complaints about OCPS. (AP Bio teacher). Most of my kids are not equipped to handle the class academically or emotionally with everything else going on, and end up hating a subject I love so dearly, all because they were forced into it 😞."

"Thank you for your post. I particularly loved your clear description of the AP classes and those unfortunate enough to be trapped in them. I fully understand your description and have watched whilst students try desperately to get out of these classes and are refused. The additional damage here is a GPA that could leave them unable to get into the college of their choice or possible any college. I hope you succeed in your bid for election and even more on helping others to see what our students and teachers are facing every day. The overwhelming challenges are real."

"How is keeping students in a class they either don’t want to be in and/or aren’t prepared for helping these students for their future? Emotional and mental health is just as important, if not more than, academic success. At what point do we realize we hurting them more than helping them by placing them in AP classes they have zero interest in? There are benefits to AP classes, even if students don't pass the test, but there are other ways to earn acceleration points. These students have become political pawns. School-based admin only have so much control over this - it’s coming from much higher than them. Thank you, Matthew Fitzpatrick , for making this an issue. It destroys us to watch students suffer for a year with very little recourse. It affects them now and will affect them in the future if they need to submit their transcript for a job or other future endeavor."

"I taught AP human geography for 6 years and it's an interesting course, but for a 9th grader who just got out of hold my hand middle school it is a huge change. When I taught the course they put any student who had a 3 or above in fcat reading in my class. Not a good prerequisite for a college class. In reality, I should have only had one solid class of human geography instead of four. AP classes should only be for students who have the drive and work ethic to do well. Throwing anyone in that class because of a reading score is a recipe for disaster. No 9th grader wants all the reading, rigor and challenge of the class in general. I felt bad for many of them. On top of that, I had hard workers in my regular classes that I knew would benefit in taking AP but had low test scores and it really ticked me off that the whole basis was a test and not looking at the full potential of the student. I was able to get some of those students added to my AP courses and some did well and others didn't. AP courses should not be used for school funding or scores in my opinion. Besides, these AP courses do not mimic what a college course is really like. Past students told me how little work there is in college and how professors are overall chill. So, the way AP is presented is deceiving.

"This AP History teacher agrees. The students are serving the system instead of the system serving the students."

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Political advertisement paid for and approved by Matthew J. Fitzpatrick, Non-Partisan, for Orange County School Board Chair


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