A+ College Ready Spotlight Series: Sheffield High School

Welcome to the first edition of the A+ College Ready SpotlightThroughout the year we will spotlight schools, educators, students, events, and other aspects of our work.  We are asking our partners and others impacted by our initiative to tell their stories.  We hope that, as these stories share the impact of the public/private partnership known as A+ College Ready, they will also motivate and inspire others.

We begin with Sheffield City Schools in Sheffield, Alabama. Sheffield is a small North Alabama city school system on the Tennessee River.  This 4A high school has 243 students–38% African American and  62% white, with 43% of ALL students qualifying for free or reduced meals.

Sheffield joined the A+College Ready program in 2016.  At that time the school offered 2 AP courses and had 35 total AP enrollments. Three years later, 134 Sheffield students are enrolled in 8 different AP courses!

A few years ago, the district superintendent, leaders, and faculty at Sheffield High School knew their students were not realizing their potential. The solution?  Find a way to change both the culture and the degree of academic achievement in their school.

Joey Burch, principal and dad of an AP student at Sheffield, helped lead this transformation.  “Our mission is to provide a pathway to success.  We believe we are now doing that by providing AP courses and then challenging and supporting students to succeed in these rigorous courses.  It gives everyone involved a chance to be successful.”

Mr. Burch’s vision and the dedication of his entire team have led to the remarkable growth and success of Advanced Placement at Sheffield High School. Jennifer Patino, who teaches both 10th and 12th grade classes echoed that sentiment:  “Every AP program needs a leader–someone who believes enough that she will not be sidetracked; someone who will not allow students to quit. Our AP leader at Sheffield is Melissa Ryan, our guidance counselor.”

Melissa Ryan, who also serves as the A+ College Ready coordinator, commented, “Students realize this can truly change their lives forever. This is what we have shared, and they’ve bought into this idea that they can do better. Now they are doing better!  AP has helped so many of them become college ready.  We are succeeding.”

We also asked teachers how the open access to rigorous coursework had impacted Sheffield High School.  Devon Hester, AP chemistry teacher, remarked that the higher expectations have “turned Sheffield around.  We have definitely raised the bar.”  

“Peer pressure at Sheffield is coming from the students who are succeeding in AP classes, and kids in the middle grades are challenging one another to be ready for those courses, “ said Andrew Franck, 7th and 8th grade civics and world history teacher.

However, the most telling evidence of impact comes from the students themselves.  Molly Burch reported that she has taken all of the AP classes she possibly could as a way to help her finish college in a four-year timeframe, or less.  She recognizes that even if she doesn’t receive a qualifying score, the experience of the class is valuable beyond what any number can measure.

Jhabrea Jackson, president of the senior class, the student council, and the National Honor Society, commented that, even with a roster of AP classes,  she still has time for an active high school experience.  According to Jhabrea, these rigorous classes have “taught [her] how to care for things more.”

Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons that Sheffield High School students are learning is to not fear trying.  Mr. Franck believes that the challenge of AP courses teaches students not to be upset when they  “fail,” but to look at failure as an opportunity to grow.

We repeatedly heard these sentiments from leaders, teachers, and students.  Melissa Ryan summed it up well:  “The students have accepted the challenge.  They see the rewards.  It is so worth it.”