How is John I. Leonard High School using Cambridge AICE to prep students for success?


We spoke to John I. Leonard High School’s Principal Melissa Patterson to find out what makes the school’s Cambridge International AS & A Levels (AICE) program stand out.


College acceleration opportunities—including Advanced Placement (AP), Cambridge AICE, College-Level Examination Program (CLEP), dual enrollment, early college high schools and International Baccalaureate (IB)—can help high school students prepare for college-level work while they earn valuable college credit or work toward a postsecondary credential. However, these opportunities are still out of reach for many students.

ExcelinEd’s college acceleration policy playbooks share the specific steps states and schools can take to improve opportunities and outcomes for their students. Our first playbook identifies a series of nine non-negotiables states, colleges, universities and schools can use to strengthen their college acceleration programs to benefit all students—especially those who have been traditionally underserved. Our second playbook examines how five schools in five different states are putting these non-negotiables into practice.

In today’s post, we’ll take a closer look at one of those schools: John I. Leonard High School in Greenacres, Florida.

About John I. Leonard High School

John I. Leonard High School (JILHS) is the largest high school in Florida’s Palm Beach County school district. This urban school serves 3,600 students. The student population is roughly 70% Hispanic, 18% Black and 10% White. Most (85%) students are free- and reduced-price lunch eligible, and approximately half of the students were English language learners at some point in their school matriculation.

College Acceleration at John I. Leonard High School

JILHS offers several college acceleration opportunities: AP to around 300 students, dual credit to 50-100 students and Cambridge International AS & A Levels (AICE) to over 1,400 students.

The school offers both the AP Capstone and Cambridge AICE Diploma, an international high school curriculum and examination system. Nearly half of the student population takes Cambridge courses. The Cambridge program offers both CTE focused and other traditional academic courses. The program’s popularity with students is a result of Principal Patterson’s relentless drive to encourage students to take college-level courses. Cambridge is also popular with teachers due to its flexibility, as teachers can adapt the curriculum frameworks to make the classes exciting and relevant for their own students.

JILHS has focused on three non-negotiables to drive Cambridge success:

  • Defined and Articulated Pathways
  • Multiple Measures for Student Eligibility
  • Student Advisement

Defined and Articulated Pathways

Non-Negotiable: States ensure opportunities are part of a clearly defined and articulated pathway to a postsecondary credential.

Unlike most high schools, John I. Leonard seamlessly integrates its college acceleration opportunities—like AP, Cambridge and dual credit—through its career academies and CTE pathways. For example, the Cambridge Travel and Tourism course can be taken as early as the 9th grade and is extremely popular with students. John I. Leonard maps the Cambridge course into its CTE Travel and Tourism pathway. Students will then know the course sequences for the pathway and how college acceleration courses fit into the CTE pathway. The marriage of college acceleration and career pathways continues throughout the school.

On the next page, you will find an example of the school’s course sequence for the Computer Technology Academy CTE pathway. College Acceleration courses populate the course sequence. Through this approach, JILHS emphasizes college acceleration opportunities in each defined CTE pathway while simultaneously allowing students to earn college credit and complete a pathway.

Multiple Measures for Student Eligibility

Non-Negotiable: Postsecondary institutions and schools use multiple measures of student eligibility to allow students to enroll in opportunities, especially low-income and traditionally underrepresented students.

JILHS’s students face certain challenges. As such, Principal Patterson cannot solely rely on the state, standardized assessment or the PSAT to identify students who have the potential to succeed at college acceleration courses. Through those methods, only 15% of students would qualify. Instead, Principal Patterson uses several data points to identify students capable of taking college acceleration courses, including overall GPA, English GPA and AP Human Geography (in Spanish).

There are no eligibility restrictions on Cambridge course enrollment. However, the school must overcome significant challenges to increase Cambridge enrollment: students often don’t understand the course or its value, students don’t believe they can succeed in college-level courses and many parents have lost the idea of the value of a college education. As a result, Principal Patterson and her team spend a significant amount of time in student outreach.

Student Advisement

Non-Negotiable:Schools notify students in all schools of available opportunities and use state indicators to identify low-income and traditionally underrepresented students with the potential to succeed in college acceleration opportunities. Schools notify students and their parents of the credit transferability for each college acceleration option before students enroll.

JILHS does an outstanding job of notifying and recruiting students to take college acceleration opportunities, especially Cambridge. This hard work begins before interacting with students and parents. Principal Patterson sets an annual target based on the prior year with growth. For the 2020-21 school year, her target is to have 50% of the student population enrolled in Cambridge courses. She also examines the demographic composition of Cambridge to ensure targets are met for English language learners and students with disabilities. In short, Principal Patterson begins with high expectations for all students.

Once the targets are set, Principal Patterson and her team engage in several outreach activities, including:

Additional Strategy: Risk Taking

Many of the actions listed above may seem familiar to most high schools, but Principal Patterson has an additional strategy to drive college acceleration enrollment and success. She takes a risk by automatically enrolling students in Cambridge courses and other college acceleration opportunities.

After this automatic enrollment, some parents and students inevitably seek a change. But to do so, they must first talk with Principal Patterson and her team, and this gives the school another opportunity to sell the value of college acceleration courses and inform parents about their children’s capability to succeed. Principal Patterson explains, “I automatically enroll students in more rigorous courses like Cambridge. There is a risk to auto-enrolling students. Parents sometimes push back and ask that their student is removed from the course. I win some. I lose some. I win more.”

The Impact of State Policy

Principal Patterson acknowledges that JILHS’s success is assisted through several Florida policies.

COVID-19 Impact

JILHS closed its doors on March 16, 2020, and shifted to a remote instructional delivery model. With respect to Cambridge, no Cambridge exams were administered in spring/summer 2020. Instead, teachers were responsible for compiling student evidence of success and for ranking the students on the A-E scale by course. Cambridge could request compiled student evidence. Cambridge created an algorithm to compare predicted grades with teacher evidence and student performance in previous courses to judge grading.

Looking Forward

Principal Patterson would like access to disaggregated, post-graduate high school data on students who successfully complete a Cambridge course or earn the Cambridge AICE diploma, along with other college acceleration options, to help her better identify best practices or improvements in current offerings. This data could help, alongside the anecdotal stories from students, convince more students to attempt rigorous coursework like Cambridge.

Solution Areas:

College & Career Pathways


Career and Technical Education, College Acceleration

About the Author

Lowell Matthews, Jr., is the Director of College and Career Pathways for ExcelinEd.

Solution Areas:

College & Career Pathways