Another school choice option blooms in Florida: Cambridge

Move over AP and IB. Another rigorous college prep program is catching on in high schools across Florida and adding to the state’s pace-setting expansion of school choice.

cambridge 3The nonprofit Cambridge International Exams, now in more than 100 Florida schools, is tied to the prestigious University of Cambridge in England. That makes it attractive to parents and students looking for a competitive edge in college admissions offices. It also sounds good to education leaders wanting to promote their schools in an environment where more than 40 percent of Florida students now attend a school other than their zoned school.

Cambridge students are exposed to an international curriculum and can earn up to 45 college credits with an “AICE diploma,’’ an Advanced International Certificate of Education that is recognized by all Florida public college and universities, and some private schools.

Cambridge is promoted as somewhat less costly and time-intensive for schools to implement than International Baccalaureate, the larger, better-known program with a similar design. With its focus on critical thinking, in-depth problem-solving and strong writing skills, supporters say Cambridge also dovetails nicely with the state’s newly-adopted education standards.

“We are attempting to spread the word,’’ said Sherry Reach, Cambridge’s international manager for the Americas, who is based in Panama City. “The course and assessment program we are offering helps develop skills important in the language arts for Common Core.’’

Bay County was the first Florida district to try Cambridge in 1994. In 2000, after the state Department of Education studied it, the Legislature deemed it effective for use statewide the following year. Since then, more than 100 Florida schools have signed on with Cambridge, which offers programs for students ages 5 and up. Of those, 78 are high schools, said spokeswoman Jamie Mongiovi. Nationally, the program is in 240 elementary and secondary schools in 27 states, up from 80 schools in 2009.

“A lot of that growth has happened the last few years,’’ Reach said.

Coincidentally or not, that also happens to be a period of rapid expansion in Florida’s school choice offerings. Some 230,000 students now attend Florida charter schools, double the number five years ago. Nearly 60,000 attend private schools using tax credit scholarships, up from about 25,000 five years ago. (The program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.) Hundreds of thousands of other students attend magnets, career academies and other forms of district-sponsored choice.In May, the Miami-Dade district announced it’s expanding its 20 Cambridge programs in 16 schools to 80 programs in 70 schools over three years. Part of the reason: to compete with charter schools and other options, school leaders said. But there also is a desire to appeal to a more worldly audience.

“We have a very international community,’’ Robert D. Strickland, director of school choice and parental options for the 345,000-student district, recently told Education Week. “This program is recognized on the world level. (Parents) like to know that and feel that their child can compete on the global level.’’

That sentiment is what drew Dixie Hollins High of St. Petersburg to the program.

“The University of Cambridge is probably one of the most well-respected universities in the world,’’ said Assistant Principal Eric Zebley, who oversees the program at Dixie Hollins. And its namesake is endorsed by Harvard, MIT and other Ivy League schools – an academic branding that certainly has parents’ and students’ attention, he said.

Three years ago, the Pinellas County school district embraced Cambridge for Dixie and two other high schools as it revved up its school choice offerings. The first year at Dixie, about 50 freshmen signed up. Since then, the school has added a grade level and more students each year, and now enrolls 170. Next fall, the program will include its first seniors.

Zebley describes Cambridge as the bridge between AP and IB.

At the high school level, Cambridge is similar to Advanced Placement, the largest college-prep program in the country, with courses open to any student. Unlike AP, though, Cambridge doesn’t award non-passing scores. Students must pass the Cambridge exam to receive credit for each course. Another difference: AP doesn’t offer a specialized diploma like Cambridge and IB, which can put students in the top-tier of funding when qualifying for the state’s Bright Futures scholarship.

There’s also more flexibility with Cambridge, Zebley said. More than 60 subjects are grouped into three areas: math, science and language/arts/humanities. Students can choose which six exams they take for their diploma rather than adhering to a required list, like they do for IB, a project-based learning program. So if a student isn’t good at, say, math, he can sign up for a Cambridge science course and take that exam and still receive his AICE diploma, Zebley said.

“With IB, a student can’t have a weakness,’’ he said.

Clearly, Cambridge isn’t for everyone, Zebley said. But it can help students earn their college degrees faster while saving themselves and their parents a lot of money.