Updated graduation proposal improved, concerns linger

Posted: Thursday, February 10, 2011

A plan to increase graduation requirements and college readiness has changed based upon feedback from the public and teachers, but concerns still linger.

The Juneau School District Task Force on Graduation Requirements and College Readiness discussed Tuesday the changes it has made since its January public meeting.

Previously, the task force was going to recommend the school board phase up graduation requirements starting with the class of 2013, and then again for 2016. Concerns were raised the changes were happening too fast, and that current sophomores would have to rush changes to meet the new requirements instead of following their own track.

Other concerns were raised about increasing math, science and world languages at the expense of electives. Teachers of math and science, along with electives courses spoke out against the cut, saying electives are the reason students stay in school. Students also testified to the same thoughts.

Tuesday night’s updated recommendations heeded those concerns to a degree. Instead of tiering the graduation requirements, the new requirements would affect the graduating class of 2015 and beyond — current eighth graders.

This will give the district time to realign classes, making sure they meet curriculum guidelines.

The task force also emphasized that the goal is to increase standards from kindergarten through graduation.

Assistant Superintendent Laury Scandling, facilitator of the task force, pointed to a quote from a panel’s report.

“Changing credit requirements is meaningless unless we raise standards and expectations for student achievement,” it said. “Standards must be raised from K through 12. We cannot increase career and college readiness unless we start in kindergarten.”

Changes in credit allocations were also made. The task force had proposed requiring four years each of math and science by 2016.

Those are now changed to require a total of seven credits between the two areas. The task force also discussed having alternatives of a two-year slow-paced algebra course and geometry sequence; three years of math (algebra one and two and geometry plus a year of quantitative or applied math); or requiring mastery of algebra and geometry plus two years of pure or applied math (or only one year of pure or applied math).

The goal would be to align some elective courses to count as an applied math course.

Another concern from the original public proposal was the reduction of required physical education credits. Concerns were expressed about the national obesity rate and the need for more physical education — not less. That went back up to its current state, but the fitness concepts half credit is still out.

World language requirements went down to one. Scandling clarified the reasoning behind it: if a younger student doesn’t believe he or she is on a college track and has exposure to one year of world languages, and later decides they do want to be on a college track, they can still achieve it. Most four year universities — particularly ones Juneau students choose most often — require two years of a world language.

Several at Tuesday’s meeting voiced concern those not on the college track don’t need it. A parent and a teacher who speak several languages said adding one year of a language in high school is insignificant since that student isn’t learning enough of the language to make it useful. They recommended beginning languages in between kindergarten and early middle school as data shows that is the best time to learn languages.

Electives had been slashed from 61/2 credits to 31/2 under the last proposal. They have been brought back up to five.

Those in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting felt the updated proposal was better, however they were still concerned about the cut in elective credits. To put it in perspective, each class a student takes in a semester is a half credit. That would mean cutting out three classes in a student’s high school career.

The vocational tech teachers — woods, metals and auto shop — were very concerned about the continued cut in credits.

Teacher Tracy Rivera said at a staff meeting a couple weeks ago, all the teachers were in agreement the changes were not good; he added teachers agreeing upon one thing was rare.

Rivera said by cutting elective options out of the requirements some sectors are going to disappear. Rivera used to teach video and photography. Those classes were cut.

“In 20 years I’ve never seen a class come back that was an elective,” he said.

Steve Squires, automotive teacher, said he applauded the task force for what it was trying to do. However, he felt the cost of what they’re trying to implement with math and science will put constraints on the world of work goals.

“Something’s got to give,” he said. “It may not be auto shop. Somebody’s going to have to go.”

Science teacher Henry Hopkins said he initially thought more science would be great, but began thinking differently.

“I firmly believe kids should not have free periods,” he said. “This off-campus nonsense needs to stop. Unfortunately, in order to do that (we) need to increase FTE (employees). I think it’s a pipe dream to do this. I think its going to be expensive to do this. Next Generation gutted our electives already, despite community outcry. Those three guys (the vo-tech teachers), are who keeps my classes full. If I don’t have those electives, those welding kids, those shop kids are not going to be in my classes. If you crank up the math and science these kids need, you’re going to increase the dropout rate.”

Ben Van Allen, community member and biologist, also agreed these standards would increase the dropout rate.

He said the district should demand excellence, however it shouldn’t be putting more pressure on the students.

“There always is a wide range of people,” he said. Everybody needs to come out of high school with a feeling of success rather than not come out of high school at all.”

Trenton Davis, a 2010 district graduate, said he dropped out after the district cut advanced auto mechanics. He said those courses are the ones that are important to a lot of students.

“My point is, if it wasn’t for the vocational ed programs, I probably wouldn’t be where I’m at,” he said. “I’ve worked at Southeast Power Sports even through high school.”

He emphasized students aren’t cookie-cutter and to force more math and science that may not be applicable to them isn’t the way to go.

The task force is still taking feedback at grad@jsd.k12.ak.us, and more information on the proposal can be found at www.juneauschools.org.

The next step is for the task force to take a final recommendation to the school board.

• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at sarah.day@juneauempire.com.

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