Kindergartners learning Advanced Placement concepts?

The idea might seem strange to anyone familiar with the intensive classes that many high school students take for college credit, but it's happening in Inver Grove Heights.

The school district is in its third year of a program that trains teachers in methods specifically geared at preparing students for AP classes.

Elementary teachers at Hilltop, Pine Bend and Salem Hills are attending workshops where they read the kind of essay questions that show up on AP exams -- the kind that require kids to compare Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy -- and ask themselves, "How can I get my students ready to answer these questions?"

Spurred by the desire to increase academic rigor, many districts have paid for the College Board's Pre-AP training, which is designed for middle and high school teachers.

But Inver Grove Heights has taken the unusual step of extending the program to the elementary level -- something College Board representatives say they've seen in only a few districts nationwide.

The training doesn't mean that 5-year-olds are doing calculus problems, writing 10-page essays or sitting for lengthy exams. Instead, K-12 teachers talk with one another to coordinate lessons, and elementary teachers learn about skills and concepts they can introduce to even their youngest students.

In AP history classes, for example, high school students have to understand and write about primary source documents, so elementary teachers are making sure they use documents in their lessons, said Mary Noel, director of curriculum and instruction at the Inver Grove Heights School District. A kindergartner might not get it if you started talking about the Declaration of Independence, she said, but "you can talk about a birth certificate. You can talk about a dollar bill."

'Raising the level of rigor'

The district hopes the program will enable more students to take AP classes, and raise the bar for all of them. It's an effort that the Minnesota Department of Education applauds, said Education Commissioner Alice Seagren. One benefit of the Pre-AP program and others like it, such as International Baccalaureate, is that it helps teachers collaborate, she added.

Without them, "One or two teachers out of a building might be interested in raising the level of rigor in their own classrooms, but the whole staff may not be thinking about it."

Eight Minnesota school districts have sent teachers to Pre-AP training in the past two years, though the College Board wouldn't say which. The College Board, the national membership organization that sets guidelines for AP classes, charges $175 per participant for one-day workshops, though fees can vary, said spokeswoman Jennifer Topiel.

Inver Grove Heights spends more than $25,000 a year on its five-year Pre-AP program, Noel said.

During a recent Friday workshop, teachers at Pine Bend Elementary gathered around little tables in the library for a presentation from Barb Mahovlich, a fourth-grade teacher who serves on a team of teachers from different grade levels. As part of the Pre-AP program, the district has created four such teams, one each for social studies, math, science and English.

A look at what others teach

The goals are modest, and many teachers said they were already teaching many of the critical thinking skills that the program highlights. But teachers such as Ben Peine like the program because it offers an unusual chance to find out what teachers at other grade levels are doing.

"It gives you an opportunity to see what your kids are going to be doing when they're older," and which of this year's lessons will benefit them most down the road, said Peine, a fourth-grade teacher at Pine Bend.

Since the program started in Inver Grove Heights, Peine has changed some things about his own teaching. He now regularly requires his students to create thesis statements and support them in writing, for example.

Many Inver Grove Heights parents aren't even aware of the program's existence, but several said they liked the concept. "You're not running ahead with the curriculum," said Graham Robertson. His son Liam's first-grade teacher, Sheryl Watchorn, uses some Pre-AP lessons in her class at Hilltop Elementary. "You're broadening his mind to keep him interested."

Peine said he doesn't talk to his students specifically about how his lessons will help them get ready for Advanced Placement classes in high school, "but I do talk to them about being prepared for what's next," he said. "At some point in our lives, they're going to lead our country."

Sarah Lemagie • 612-673-7557