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Parents, students, educators worry that new HOPE rules can leave behind best and the brightest
Johnson High School senior Daniel McGrail delivers his presentation on the new HOPE Scholarship guidelines Tuesday evening at the Hall County school system offices.

Students, parents and educators complained Tuesday night about last year’s eligibility changes in the much-coveted HOPE Scholarship and its effects on students taking challenging courses.

But they also grappled for ways to advocate change, as well as deal with current realities of laws governing HOPE, including how to ease the pain for future students and parents.

The discussion took place Tuesday night in a forum organized by Daniel McGrail, a Johnson High School senior and that school’s Student Teacher Achievement Recognition student this year.

About 25 people attended the forum at the school system offices at 711 Green St.

The Georgia Student Finance Commission also sent a couple of representatives, including Tracy Ireland, the agency’s vice president of financial aid operations, who served on a panel of Hall County educators.

One of the biggest changes to HOPE, which covers tuition at public colleges and offsets tuition by $3,000 at private ones, is that all courses, regardless of difficulty level, are placed on basically the same footing when it comes to GPA calculations.

The number of public high school students qualifying for HOPE dropped to 29,617 in the 2006-07 school year from 42,233 in 2003-04, said McGrail in his presentation.

Carey Miller, a Johnson High senior, talked about how he dropped an advanced-level chemistry class as he realized early on that it was much too difficult for him.

He ended up enrolling in a standard chemistry class that he breezed through, earning an A. Those who stuck out the tougher course, meanwhile, struggled to get a C.

Miller said the consensus among students attending the forum was that too often students who deserve HOPE aren’t getting it because they loaded up on rigorous courses in high school.

And students often get HOPE by enrolling in easier courses.

The result, educators say, is that students getting HOPE by taking an easier route are more at risk of losing the scholarship while in college, because they are less prepared for tougher college courses.

The stricter requirements, the result of legislative concerns that lottery proceeds to the program would be outstripped by demand, initially will save the HOPE program money, Ireland said.

But state officials believe that more money could be spent on the program as more students keep or regain their scholarship while in college, he added.

One of the panel members, Kathy Kersh, a Johnson High math teacher, talked about how her son, an honor student at Johnson, went from having a weighted grade-point average of 3.59 to 2.97 — just short of HOPE’s 3.0 GPA requirement — by the time fees were due at Gainesville State College in Oakwood.

Upon closer examination of his transcript, Kersh saw that her son didn’t get credit for a high school algebra class he took in eighth grade.

"That was one of the most difficult things to explain to my son," she said.

McGrail said that he believed that school officials educating parents as early as seventh grade about HOPE requirements, such as through direct mailings as opposed to letters going home via student bookbags, could stem future parent concerns.

Also, to make changes in current policy, parents and students could contact lawmakers, McGrail said.

Ireland agreed with that, adding that his agency sets procedures based on laws set by the General Assembly.

Ann Brunk, another of the panelists and a Johnson High teacher, had copies of a sample letter that could be sent to lawmakers.

"I think that this is an issue for the students of Hall County and all of Georgia," the letter says. "We must strive toward academic excellence, not mediocrity.

"Please take action now to ensure that the best and the brightest do not get left behind."

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