The list of advanced course options for middle school students could get shorter next fall, but kids who need extra rigor in class will still get it, according to the Prior Lake-Savage school district.

In addition to honors classes, the district offers an International Baccalaureate (IB) program at Twin Oaks Middle School and Pre-AP at Hidden Oaks Middle School. But one or more of those options could be eliminated in 2010-11, depending on the recommendations of a study group that began meeting on Thursday.

In a letter to parents last month, school officials said they would discontinue all three -- IB, Pre-AP and honors -- next fall in favor of "newly conceived, yet to be named" offerings.

The news surprised parents such as Heather McGraw, who has a daughter at Twin Oaks and said she believes advanced courses are important for high-level learners. "I think the community would be very, very upset if there weren't opportunities for those kids to be challenged in class," she said.

The district has since backed off the plan to drop the programs, at least for now. Instead, a group of principals, teachers and parents -- including McGraw -- will review all the advanced programming that's now available to middle school students. The study group will recommend a plan to the school board early in 2010 that, if approved, would be rolled out in the fall.

The discussion comes after Twin Oaks hit a stumbling block in its multi-year quest to gain IB certification. The school learned this summer that it would need to address a number of issues -- incurring "rather significant" costs, principal Dan Edwards said -- in order to be authorized.

District officials say the conversation is a chance to re-evaluate IB and Pre-AP and make sure students are getting similar opportunities at the two middle schools, which are across the street from each other. Twin Oaks launched its IB program in 2007, the same year that Hidden Oaks began offering Pre-AP courses.

Both models are designed to encourage active, high-level learning and include training in methods that teachers can use with all their students, not just the best and brightest. They do have differences, however, said principals at the two middle schools.

At Twin Oaks, about 60 students in each grade level are in the school's IB "certificate program," which has clustered those students for certain classes and taught them Spanish starting in the sixth grade. Hidden Oaks offers several sections of Pre-AP math, English and American history. Students must apply for both programs, submitting test scores, teacher recommendations and writing samples.

However, neither school offers Pre-AP or IB in quite the way that the teaching models are intended to be used.

Hidden Oaks may call it Pre-AP American history, for example, but technically, "There's no such thing," said David Gupta, executive director of the Midwestern regional office of the College Board, which runs Pre-AP trainings. Unlike the Advanced Placement program for high school students, he said, Pre-AP is not meant to be a set of courses for advanced learners. Instead, it's a set of teaching strategies designed to challenge all students.

The IB program at Twin Oaks has also drawn an extensive critique from the organization that authorizes International Baccalaureate schools. After a site visit this spring, Twin Oaks was told that it had fallen short in eight of the measures used to identify IB schools, Edwards said. The concerns range from how the school teaches technology skills to the amount of time teachers are given for collaborative planning, he said.

That kind of feedback is "not out of the ordinary" for a school going through the IB authorization process, which can take two to four years, said Drew Deutsch, director of the IB Americas region.

At Twin Oaks, some of the issues could be easy to fix, while others, such as providing enough time for collaborative planning, would require bigger changes, Edwards said. All told, the changes needed to win authorization as an IB school could cost Twin Oaks between $50,000 and $150,000 per year, he estimated -- a cost that could double in the district if Hidden Oaks also seeks IB status.

Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016