Public: New grad requirements would kill electives, drive up drop out rate

Posted: Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A proposal for new graduation requirements that would require Juneau School District high school students to take more math, science and foreign language classes in lieu of free elective classes was met with more criticism than optimism at a public meeting Tuesday night.

The Task Force on Graduation Requirements and College Readiness spent several months researching how to better prepare students for college and careers by raising the bar for graduates. This includes bringing the credit total required to graduate from 21.5 to 23 by 2016 — which will also require students to double required math and science courses from two to four by 2016 and add two years of a foreign language. This reduces the number of elective credits from 6.5 to 3.5.

The task force held a public meeting Tuesday night to discuss the proposal, and take questions and feedback. About 100 people — students, teachers and parents of past and present students — turned out.

Many were concerned increasing graduation requirements at a time when many are already struggling to graduate would only increase the drop-out rate. Others had similar concerns with requiring all students to take more math and science when not all students are interested in college or careers that feature complex math and science knowledge.

One focused on University of Alaska Southeast data that shows more Juneau School District’s graduates need remediation in math and English than other districts in the state. That speaker said there already is a requirement of four years of English, yet just as many students need remediation in English as they do with two years of math.

“We spent a lot of time talking about math and about the concept of math electives,” said task force member Margo Waring. “By having different kinds of elective math courses is a way of reaching that goal. We’re allowing students to follow their interests. For some students, math is just an ongoing challenge. For some students, some of their time might be spent in a slower-paced math class.”

Task force member Brian Holst, also on Juneau Economic Development Council, said in a survey of Southeast businesses — 250 — responded only 14 percent felt employees with high school diplomas had adequate skills to be a business asset.

At least a dozen electives teachers also gave testimony. The consensus was that for many students, those classes are why they stay in school. Those classes are where math and science concepts are applied in a practical sense.

JDHS teacher Ricky Bass said if it weren’t for electives — and his metals and automotive teachers — he never would have graduated high school. He eventually majored in math in college and now teaches mathematics in elective forms including honors precalculus, engineering and others. He said if his students couldn’t take the electives they wanted they probably would never make it to his classes because they wouldn’t be in school.

Tyree Pini, music teacher at Thunder Mountain, said he was glad graduation requirements would increase, because there is too much of a feeling with seniors of how little is expected of them, whereas there is too much expected of freshmen. He wanted to see a balance.

One thing people were pleased about is the task force focused more on increasing rigor of instruction, rather than credits, however they wanted to see more of an action plan.

Retired English teacher Bill Chalmers said students need four years of English, but it needs to be done better. He said he has a daughter in high school who is successful in all areas of academics, but if it weren’t for theater she would not be as successful.

“My son, the math major, is evidence that four years of math is essential for some people,” he said. “Where I, as an English teacher, am vivid evidence that its not essential for everybody.”

Chalmers said they need to focus on building a robust curriculum. “I’m not a fan of the word rigor,” he said. “It’s a half a word, which includes the word rigid. ... the other half of the word is mortis.”

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