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Eighth-graders have 440 choices for major

Education officials hope keeping students focused will improve graduation rates.

By DONNA WINCHESTER
Published December 12, 2006


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From ceramics to international law, Florida's eighth-graders will have 440 majors to choose from for next year.

The state released the list of "areas of interest" on Monday, the centerpiece of a law passed by the Legislature in the spring to improve the graduation rate.

The plan also should encourage good students to continue challenging themselves, Education Commissioner John Winn said during a conference call Monday.

"Some students are very goal-oriented, but far too many aren't," Winn said. "The idea is for them to go through a process of thinking about what they would like to pursue as a special area of interest and get on the road toward developing that competency, whether it helps them in their career or in life."

Florida ranked 43rd in the nation with a 66.7 percent graduation rate in 2002-03 according to the most recent report issued by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Department of Education officials are hoping the majors program - part of Gov. Jeb Bush's A Plus Plus plan to reinvigorate middle and high schools - will turn things around.

High school students still will need 24 credits to graduate. Sixteen are core requirements, including English, math, science and social studies. That leaves eight elective credits, four of which must be dedicated under the new plan to a major. The other four credits can count toward another major or individual electives.

Instead of choosing electives randomly, the plan forces incoming ninth-graders to think about a cluster of courses in the same subject area, Winn said. They can change their major each year of high school, so they're not locked into one subject, he said.

Not all majors will be offered in every district. With 440 to choose from, there should be plenty of offerings to accommodate all schools and all children, Winn said.

Department of Education staffers initially identified 180 majors from the state's course code directory, then asked school districts to submit more based on their current class offerings. By Oct. 1, the state had received more than 700 submissions, which it whittled to the 440 released Monday.

Pinellas officials say they're well on the way toward introducing majors to this year's eighth-graders.

"I would consider Pinellas ahead of the curve on this because of our academies and attractor programs," said Harry Brown, associate superintendent for curriculum. "Most of our high schools already have themes and things students can pursue."

The district submitted 11 areas of interest to the state, all of which were approved, Brown said. Among them: advanced math and science, computer and communications technology, criminal justice, family services and support, and public health and wellness.

Brown said the district probably will not add any new majors next year, although it will be open to creating new ones in the future.

"I think down the road the schools will have to look at themselves and ask, 'What do we do best?' " Brown said. "We'll then look at students' interests and try to create courses around those interests."

The Hillsborough County School District submitted a list of 72 majors, including agribusiness; animal biotechnology; collision repair and refinishing; and sports, recreation and entertainment, said Michael Grego, assistant superintendent for curriculum.

"We really crossed the gamut for all students," Grego said. "We think this all makes sense, to continually ask students where their interests lie and how we can help serve them."

Winn referred in Monday's announcement to a 20-year study by the Southern Regional Education Board that indicates most students can master complex academic and technical concepts if schools create an environment that assumes they can be successful. The study showed that the same components present in the state's plan - engagement, challenge and goal-setting - are the elements most likely to keep children tuned in to school and on track for graduation.

"You often have children finishing their high school requirements by taking the minimum amount of work and then grazing around, taking the path of least resistance with no goal in mind," said Gene Bottoms, senior vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board. "We find that students who have a clear goal beyond high school, who have a solid program of academics, have an anchor point, a niche."

Winn said he has high hopes for the majors plan.

"If this is done with the right frame of mind," he said, "then I have absolutely no doubt that we will have many, many more students engaged, and many, many more students persevering in graduating from high school."

[Last modified December 12, 2006, 01:38:40]


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