Tuscola High School counters rumors that advanced courses have been curtailed

Despite rumors that cuts at Tuscola High School in Waynesville could reduce the number of advanced courses, academically gifted students will have just as many courses to chose from next school year.

Tuscola will lose five teaching positions, which is likely what fueled the buzz among students that fewer honors courses would be offered. Parents mounted a campaign imploring the school not to cut the number of upper level classes.

School administrators say this was never the case, however.

“I think there has been some misinformation, and it just spread like wildfire,” said Stephanie Goodwin, an assistant principal at Tuscola.

To combat the rumors, the school even scheduled a mass pre-recorded phone call to parents. Robocalls are usually used by the school system to share information on everything from snow days to school-wide testing. This one assured parents there would be no cuts to advanced course offerings next year.

Kim Turpin was among the parents who voiced concerns after hearing the school was reassessing both the number and variety of upper level courses it offered. Her daughter is eyeing Stanford but to get in she would need plenty of Advanced Placement courses — essentially university-level courses that count toward the students’ college course credits.

“If you have smart kids, why wouldn’t you feed your smart kids?” asked Turpin. “They need to provide courses so they can go out in the world and be competitive.

Turpin said it is also important for the overall reputation of the school system.

“Anyone you are wanting to attract as a professional in your community, they are going to be looking at your school system,” Turpin said.

Tuscola is offering Advanced Placement, or AP courses, in four areas this year. Next school year, two new subjects will be added — so in essence there are more AP courses being offered next year, both in the variety and sheer number.

Every January, Tuscola High School surveys students to see what AP courses they are interested in for the coming school year. The line-up is built accordingly.

“Student interest drives our schedule for those upper classes,” Goodwin said. “The only way we reduce the number is if we don’t have student interest.”

Unfortunately, if there aren’t enough students interested in a particular AP course to comprise a full class, the school can’t offer it.

“There has been a reduction of funds the last two or three years in the public schools and you have to get the most bang for your buck,” said Danny Miller, the high school curriculum supervisor for Haywood County Schools. “If you had only five or six kids interested in a course, whether it is AP or say business law, it is hard to take a teacher’s block of time and dedicate it to that.”

That is the case with some AP courses, such as AP Physics and AP World History, which only have a handful of students express interest each year, so the course is offered online only.

Haywood County has roughly 2,000 students at its two high schools. While Tuscola High School historically has been larger than Pisgah, reallocation in recent years has led to a reduction in the number of students at Tuscola and an increase at Pisgah. That in turn led to Tuscola needing fewer teachers.

“Our class sizes will be larger next year,” said Tuscola Principal Dale McDonald.

The teachers taken away from Tuscola have not been added to Pisgah, however.

Despite the loss of teachers in the schools, students won’t be left without enough classes to fill their school day.

“Even with the massive cuts, we’ve had I can’t imagine that high-performing students won’t have plenty of honors or AP course offerings,” Bill Nolte, the assistant superintendant of Haywood County Schools, said. “The capacity to offer the courses has not changed.”

The students still have to be taught, and so a teacher standing in front of a particular class can just as easily teach an honors curriculum for an allotted class, according to Nolte.

While the number and variety of AP classes are based on student interest, the school also vets students to ensure they are eligible for the courses.

“You have to recognize this is a college-level class while you are in high school,” Goodwin said.

Even for honors courses, students have to qualify. The application process is based on a combination of test scores, grades in the current academic year and teacher evaluations. For honors English courses, students have to take a tailor-made test to get in. Based on those results, there will be only two honors English courses for sophomores at Tuscola next year compared to three this year.

While parents have expressed concerns that the testing has weeded out the number of students eligible for honors English, Nolte said it is important to make sure students end up in the appropriate level course at the beginning of the school year.

“Otherwise they will want out of the course midway through, and there won’t be a regular English course to jump to,” Nolte said.

Dr. Kristen Hammet, a veterinarian in Waynesville, has been an advocate of offering advanced courses in high school.

“We do need to offer the kids courses; they need to be able to get in top level schools,” said Hammet. “If these kids can’t compete, they can’t get into the Dukes and the Princetons and Davidsons.”

But, it’s more than that, Hammet said. She sees academically gifted students as a special-needs group. They crave a challenge that, if unmet, can leave them floudering and can lead to them checking out intellectually.

“These kids need these courses,” Hammet said. “It has been shown that if the gifted and intellectually and academically gifted kids are not offered courses that meet their challenge, they are at greater risk of dropping out, or become more depressed and more suicidal.”

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