For most students at Gainesville High School, the first bell at 8:25 a.m. marks the start of classes. That’s not the case for Taylor Christian.
Christian arrives at school an hour before her classmates to begin the day. It’s her senior year, so the 17-year-old has to impress college admissions officers with her rigorous academic schedule. It starts with “zero period,” Advanced Placement micro and macroeconomics and continues through six other AP and Cambridge courses. The zero period starts an hour before the regular school day and allows students to pursue an extra course later in the day.
“They’re (college admissions officers) looking for everything,” Christian said. “You have to be good with everything.”
But with a growing number of students like Christian, who are filling their schedules with AP, International Baccalaureate and honors-level courses, elective classes in Alachua County are diminishing in class size and offerings.
Enrollment has recently risen in higher-level courses and diminished for elective courses, according to data from Karen Clarke, who oversees Alachua County Public Schools’ curriculum and structural services.
Marion County has seen a similar trend. Students there took 461 more AP exams in 2014 than they did in 2010.
Some students do not have time in their schedules to take art classes. To impress college admissions officers, students take more challenging classes to show they can handle the work load.
The typical well-rounded education of arts, humanities and sciences is starting to lean toward the latter two; that disappoints parents like Karen Clarke, who has a son in high school.
Clarke said she has seen her son make his schedule, and he’s trying to be as vigorous in his elective choices as Christian. He chose to take a science course over an art course because of the standards colleges are looking for. In Florida, this could be attributed to the state pushing its STEM program into the education system.
“Colleges want to see that.” Clarke said. “They want to see the academic challenge.”
However, this trend may not exist outside of Alachua and Marion counties. Data from Putnam County shows enrollment in elective courses versus in AP and honors courses has not changed much between 2010 and 2014. Enrollment in AP Spanish increased by two students, AP psychology increased by 10 students and honors pre-calculus dropped by 16 students.
As per Florida statute, public school students must earn 24 credits to graduate. Of those 24, they can choose eight elective credits throughout their four years in high school — two of which must go toward a foreign language. They can use those elective credits to take any class they want in a range of areas like sciences, arts, technology or physical education.
But now, students have fewer elective class periods to choose from, Clarke said. Before, an elective like painting would have three periods available to choose from. Now, it may only have one. Scheduling these classes has everything to do with enrollment. If students show interest in a class, the school may provide extra periods of that class so more students can take it. The same is true if students are not enrolling in classes — periods are removed.
Students are also making different decisions about electives. Instead of taking physics over photography, students are now choosing between a third year of Spanish or an honors or AP science class. An art elective may not even be in the equation for some students.
It’s almost a gamble. Students are deciding which class they think will be more attractive to admissions officers from the very start of their ninth grade year.
Christian almost laughs at the thought of taking an elective class like pottery. She said her time is better spent in AP and Cambridge classes, “which is bad because it’s true.”
When she was a junior, she filled one of her elective spots with a digital video class at Gainesville High School. She said she had a great teacher, and it felt good to have that in between her other rigorous classes. But after that year, her teacher Tony Malo was concerned he may have to offer fewer classes in the 2014-2015 year because enrollment was not as high as it had been in previous school years.
Malo said he noticed he was losing students to dual enrollment and Cambridge classes, so he had to recruit students himself in order to keep teaching the digital media classes. This year, he was able to reach the 30-student class enrollment requirement needed to keep his class going. But next year, it may be a struggle.
“I think schools don’t emphasize electives at all,” Christian said. “They don’t encourage you to take them. They don’t offer good ones.”
Gainesville High School Principal David Schelnutt said schools right now are not seeing a complete disappearance of elective course offerings but a restructure of them.
“Schools are trying to find creative ways to do that,” Schelnutt said. “But we also understand the importance of arts.”
Gainesville High offers a zero-period, which acts as a seventh period. It’s a course offered before the regular six-period school day begins, and Schelnutt said it gives students an opportunity to fit an elective, like drawing or theater, into their schedules.
Jordan Miles, a 17-year-old senior at Buchholtz High School, said she thinks college admission standards are a little high, but she understands they have to be in order to enroll the best students.
“It makes you want to work harder,” Miles said.
Along with honors pre-calculus, AP microeconomics and senior-level honors English, Miles found one free slot she filled with ceramics, an art class. She does not regret it; she said it’s her most relaxing class.
“I can put my focus into whatever project I’m working on,” Miles said.
She’s doing everything she can to maintain her straight A’s. She wants to major in marketing in college. But for now, she is waiting to receive admissions letters from universities across the country.
“I’m freaking out,” she said.