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School boards may alter graduation units

Gainesville, Hall consider diploma changes to cut dropout rates

POSTED: March 28, 2009 11:35 p.m.

Graduation aid

Tonya Aiken, a Gainesville High School credit recovery teacher, explains how the online credit recovery program works and how it might help more students to graduate if it were expanded.

TOM REED /The Times

David Ceja works on a virtual learning program in the Gainesville High School computer lab.

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In an effort to put more students on the fast track to high school graduation, the Gainesville and Hall County school boards have toyed with the idea of reducing the number of courses required for graduation.

As the state puts more pressure on schools to produce students who earn a diploma in four years, local systems are searching for ways to provide new options for students who are at risk of dropping out.

Boards are considering one option that would make it possible for all students to graduate with fewer courses. At Gainesville High School, administrators are considering implementing an online accelerated program this fall that would help working students stay in school.

Both Gainesville and Hall require students to obtain 28 course units for graduation. Only Hall County's Lanier Career Academy, an alternative high school, allows students to graduate with 23 course units, the state minimum.

Board members of both school systems have discussed reducing the 28 credit unit requirement to 23. But both boards have stalled on making the change.

Hall Superintendent Will Schofield said his system is not yet sure where it's going to land on the issue.

"What we'd like to do is maintain high expectations for our students. And at the same time, those students who get behind and grow up, we'd like to give them an opportunity to graduate," he said. "We're trying to balance how to do that."

According to the state Department of Education, Gainesville High's graduation rate was 77 percent in 2008, down about 3 percentage points from 2007.

Hall's combined graduation rate for its high schools was 72.4 percent in 2008, up about 5 percentage points from 2007.

Statewide, the 2008 graduation rate was about 75 percent and the 2007 graduation rate was about 72 percent.

Schofield said the change in the graduation units would target students who may goof off in the first part of high school, but then get smart and realize they want a high school diploma. He said the system would like to provide an opportunity for such students to graduate with a diploma without having to attend the Lanier Career Academy.

"Some might grow up at some point in their high school career, but then say, ‘Gosh, I can't get to 28, I'm already 17 years old. I might as well just go ahead and drop out and go to work,'" Schofield said.

He said the school board also does not want to send a message to students that they only need to earn 23 credits, which can be done easily in three years, and then coast through senior year.

Schofield said when many schools went from a six-period school day to a block schedule, many systems adopted higher course requirements for graduation since block scheduling allows students to take more courses in a four-year period.

"I think a lot of schools, almost in a knee-jerk reaction, raised graduation requirements to 28," he said. "And not that it was necessarily a bad thing, but I think what we forgot is that's five more units for those kids who struggle and who traditionally have not done well in school."

Schofield said in systems that have a 23-unit requirement, students don't typically leave high school in droves after their junior year. But he said for a select few students, that may be the best option for them as they are academically and emotionally prepared to begin college.

Schofield said since few students choose to spend only three years in high school, there is not likely to be a significant economic impact on the school system if the 23-unit minimum is adopted. But fewer students does mean fewer state dollars, he added.

Charity Wang, a language arts teacher at Johnson High School, said she is concerned about lowering the bar for students.

"I think anytime you're talking about reducing requirements, you're potentially talking about reducing rigor on students," she said. "And we want our students to complete the most rigorous course work that they can, because that best prepares them to succeed."

Wang said she feels lowering the graduation unit requirement for Hall County students could be detrimental to some students' collegiate, scholarship and athletic pursuits. She said the Lanier Career Academy is already in place to help students who fit the 23-unit category.

"Hall County has really worked hard ... to be a leader on educational sorts of issues and things in the state. ... I think we should lead instead of follow in that regard," she said.

Gainesville Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said the city school board has discussed the issue briefly, but does not have the unit requirement item on any upcoming agendas. She said at this point the system is preparing to enact an online program similar to its credit recovery program to provide students opportunities to plow through coursework.

Schofield and Dyer said the school systems' boards have been holding off on making a final decision on the issue because a House bill could make the decision for them. Legislation proposed in January that would provide Georgia's high school students with three options for high school diplomas rather than just one.

The bill proposes an 18-credit general diploma, a 22-credit technical diploma and a 23-credit college prep diploma.

With the legislature wrapping up its session next week, the bill has yet to make it to the full House. It is still alive and eligible for debate in 2010.

Dyer said she's hoping to use some federal stimulus funds to purchase more computer software to augment Gainesville High's E2020 online course program. The E2020 program combines online learning with in-person teacher instruction and virtual teaching. She said the school currently uses the E2020 online program to allow new transfer students or students who failed a class by only a few points to recover credits.

Dyer said regardless of whether the school board reduces the graduation requirement, she aims to have an expanded E2020 course catalog in place this fall to allow more students to use it to replace traditional classroom courses.

"(Students) would be scheduled into (E2020 classes) just as they would be scheduled into any class," she said. "They would come to school on the bus ... and they'd still be at Gainesville High School, it's just their class would be taught in a different way."

Dyer said she and Gainesville High Principal Chris Mance have discussed offering the online programs during the morning and then repeating programming opportunities in the afternoon for a different set of students.

"Our board comments were they do not want this to be viewed as an easy road, as an easy track," Dyer said. "It's just as rigorous, it's just compacted in time."

Tonya Aiken, a Gainesville High credit recovery teacher, said she believes an alternative high school program has been needed at the school for a long time.

She said many students who come to her credit recovery class failed courses in the traditional classroom environment, but excel using E2020 under her close guidance. Aiken said until some students get a glimpse of how high school could be different using the program, many think school is just not for them.

"They see school as not fitting into their life, but school has to fit into your life if you're going to have a future," she said. "... We have to start customizing education to the kids, because we can't customize the kids to an education."



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