THOMAS C. TOBIN
Educators debate a law that lets high schoolers graduate after three years. Its aim is to reduce class sizes; some say it will lower academic standards.
Forced to carry out the will of Florida voters and bent on doing it cheaply, Republican legislators fished everywhere for ways to reduce class sizes.
Hundreds of ideas bubbled to the surface in the spring. Several became law. Only one became "the single most talked about part of the class size bill," said state Rep. Joe Pickens, R-Palatka, who helped craft the measure.
The idea in question: cut class sizes by moving high school students out the door early. It has become a controversial state law that gives high school students the option to graduate in three years with 18 credits instead of the traditional four years with 24-29 credits.
Suddenly, settling on a graduation option will be the first order of business for seniors returning to school next month. A few might have enough credits to graduate immediately or halfway through the year.
Juniors, meanwhile, could plot an early exit from high school if they take just the right courses during the coming year.
Sophomores and freshmen will be advised to start planning as well. With more lead time than their predecessors, they could be the first bumper crop of early graduates in a year or two if the idea takes hold.
The impact filters down to sixth grade, the level at which districts must start notifying students of their new graduation options.
"We have no idea how popular this will be," said Cathy Fleeger, Pinellas County Schools assistant superintendent for high school education and workforce development, echoing officials in other districts.
Across the state, guidance counselors are scrambling to learn the new law and the many ways it will affect students. The Florida Department of Education, responsible for implementing the class size bill, is straining to keep up with the hail of questions.
Adding to that is the policy debate that crackles in school board offices throughout Florida.
Some are calling the early graduation option the end of senior year as we know it, a law that compels kids to rob themselves of "the senior experience" and all its glories.
Others say 18 credits will spell doom for students seeking entrance to competitive colleges.
Many worry about casting 16- and 17-year-olds into the working world or the college life before they're ready.
"I wouldn't recommend it for my kid, let's put it that way," Fleeger told a roomful of guidance counselors who gathered last week to comb through the new law and collectively groan at some of its provisions.
Among her many concerns is that the state has added to a growing list of forces that pressure kids to grow up faster.
"They're going to be in the world of work for a long time," Fleeger said. "Now is the time to explore. ... I'm not sure we're doing them a favor in pushing them to adulthood earlier."
To these and other fears, Pickens answers: Early graduation is an option, not a requirement.
It is meant for "a certain segment of the student population that is focused and mature and academically advanced," said Pickens, a school board attorney for 15 years in Putnam County and vice chairman of the House Subcommittee on Education Appropriations.
"It is empowering parents, giving them another option that will be right for some students but not for the majority," he said. "For the parents that think this is a bad idea, their student should stay in school and earn 24 credits."
Parents must sign off if a student wants to graduate early. And as with the four-year option, students must pass the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and achieve a 2.0 grade point average.
The new law offers two separate tracks to students who want to graduate with 18 credits: one geared toward college-bound students and the other toward those who seek vocational careers.
Understanding the law requires some knowledge of Florida's high school credit system.
To earn one credit in a traditional high school with six 55-minute periods, students must complete a yearlong class. Each semester class earns a half-credit. Students generally earn 6 credits a year.
The system is different in high schools with "block" or "four-by-four" schedules where classes last 90 minutes to allow for lab work and other hands-on learning. There are four periods a day and students can earn as much as 8 credits a year.
Much of the debate has focused on the academic rigor of the new options.
Critics note that four mandatory courses under the traditional 24-credit option - American history, world history, economics and American government - are not required under either of the new options. Students on the fast track could take those courses as part of a social sciences requirement, but they don't have to.
Critics also point to another difference: The traditional diploma requires 81/2 credits of electives, which allow students to explore areas of interest and meet the demands of competitive colleges. The new options require only three electives.
Pickens counters that the 18-hour options are more rigorous in some ways.
They require students to take two years of the same foreign language, which is not a graduation requirement under the four-year option but one that college-bound students generally fulfill. Pickens also said the minimum math requirements are higher for the 18-credit options. He called it a "very aggressive level" of courses.
"The idea was we did not want to lower the academic standards" for 18-credit graduates, he said.
Pickens said that next year, he wants to increase the required grade point average for 18-credit graduates to 2.75 and not count D grades toward graduation.
He said the college-bound option aligns with the core courses required by universities and that most admissions offices focus only on those courses.
That is not the case in competitive colleges, however.
Courses beyond the required core, such as fourth-year math, science and social sciences, are "an important factor in the admission process," said Bill Kolb, director of admissions at the University of Florida.
Kolb attended a meeting of his colleagues from other universities last week, where fast-track graduation was discussed. While he hesitated to speak for the other schools, he said: "Generally, most other universities have felt that this option would disadvantage an applicant," though it would not disqualify one.
At the University of Georgia, the number of courses taken beyond the required core courses is a major factor in the admissions process.
"We're looking for the students who have challenged themselves in various academic areas," said Bob Spatig, senior associate director of admissions. "A student who's in a hurry to graduate and misses some of those opportunities simply may not present as competitive a profile to the faculty admissions committee."
Pickens said the new law was meant for a narrow group of students. He gave the example of a student who qualifies to take community college courses while in high school but doesn't like the local college's curriculum.
"There are a number of (vocational) career paths that high school doesn't provide career training for," he said.
Other scenarios include students who need to work as soon as possible to support their families.
Chuck Fleming, general director of secondary education for Hillsborough County Schools, gave the example of a student who misses a year of school because of injury or illness and wants to catch up with classmates.
"For some youngsters, this will be a very good tool to utilize," he said. "I don't want to just see it as a negative."
John Long, superintendent of Pasco County Schools, also sees it as a good thing. With 2,400 new students this year, his district will add enough portables to make nine full schools.
"We're so crowded in all of our high schools that having kids move out in three years has some appeal to us," Long said.
Pinellas official Fleeger argues that the better deal for most students who want a head start on college is a "dual enrollment" or "early enrollment" program that allows them to take local college courses at no cost while still in high school.
She, Pickens and others across the state agree that the crop of 18-credit graduates will be small the first year. Many seniors will not have taken the required foreign language courses, and most will not have taken fourth-year English. A similar situation - too many credits to earn, too little time - will prevent many rising juniors from making this their last year of high school.
"The timing is difficult for this year," Pickens said. "It may take a couple of years before we find out what the real utility of this is."