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A Times Editorial

Privilege of graduating is for those who earn it

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 24, 2002

The Pasco County School District used to pride itself on having tougher academic standards than the state of Florida. That changed amid a state budget crunch a decade ago when the School Board shortened the school day to six periods and reduced the number of credits needed for a diploma from 26 to the state standard of 24.

Now, the School Board is investigating diluting graduation one step further. Nothing as drastic as cutting credits or lowering the required grade-point average. But by allowing students -- who either didn't make the grade, obtain the required credits or pass the state proficiency exam -- to participate in graduation ceremonies, the board would be diminishing the accomplishments of the vast majority of high school seniors who did.

It won't be applicable for this evening's commencement exercises, but the board agreed to re-evaluate its graduation policy next month. It shouldn't be so quick to retreat from what is a reasonable expectation: Only graduates will go through graduation ceremonies.

The hand-wringing is over a small percentage of students. Of the 2,521 seniors, 58 won't graduate tonight because of low scores on the state test and about 200 more because they didn't maintain a C average or complete their course work.

Regardless, responding to chagrined students and parents, School Board member Jean Larkin indicated the district was punishing the few unfairly and she characterized commencement as "just a ceremony. It's just children walking across a stage."

We disagree. Graduation isn't about a self-esteem certificate. It is the public school system's final recognition for satisfactory academic achievement. Under her thinking, students would get the recognition whether they earned it or not.

Larkin is one of two board members remaining from the pre-1992 era of having local standards higher than the state requirements. The other, Kathleen Wolf, wisely reigned in board members teetering on granting an immediate waiver for the students who appealed.

"I know it seems terribly unjust," Wolf told parents Tuesday evening, "but at what point do we make the cutoff?"

Larkin and fellow board member Kathy Martin should consider the logic of Wolf and Pam Coulter, who defended the policy. The board adopted the requirements four years ago amid growing numbers of students who participated in commencement ceremonies, then declined afterward to complete the prerequisite work as promised.

Frustrated principals asked for the measure to hold the seniors accountable. It should not be construed as punishment. Students and parents are notified of the requirement throughout the students' senior year, and tutorial help is available.

The district even accommodates the late graduates. Those who complete the requirements over the summer participate in a second commencement ceremony in August.

What's so unfair about that?

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