More credits wanted for struggling students

Oct. 05, 2013 @ 03:15 PM

Can a program designed to help students who are off track graduate with a diploma do more to help prepare students?

During a recent Durham Public Schools Board of Education support services committee meeting, that question was posed during an update on the district’s 21-credit general diploma program.

The program helps struggling students with extenuating circumstances finish high school.

School board member Nancy Cox wondered whether the 21-credit diploma program could increase to 24 credits.

She reasoned that “maybe that is our aspiration with this … to figure out a way to get those extra three [credits] so they at least have 24. If we’re allowed to say that 24 is enough for [Durham School of the Arts], are we allowed to say that 24 is our [district] minimum?”

The difference between the 21-credit general diploma and the one earned by most other DPS students is the number of electives. The 21-credit diploma requires six instead of 13. The 15 core course credits are the same. DPS students are required to earn 28 credits to graduate. Students on a four-by-four schedule have the opportunity to earn 32 credits by the end of their senior year.

According to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, local school boards can add to the state’s baseline, 21-credit requirement for a high school diploma, but they cannot reduce it. The University of North Carolina system requires a high school diploma for admission and does not specify credits beyond the 21 required by the state.

Beginning with the 2012-13 class of entering freshmen, this diploma program now requires 22 credits for completion.

The 21-credit program, approved by the state, was adopted by the district three years ago.

Six prevalent extenuating circumstances DPS students face that makes the 21-credit diploma a viable option. Those are teen pregnancy, chronic substance abuse, working to support a family, parenting responsibilities, mental health challenges or homelessness, explained Jim Key, the district’s area superintendent for high schools.

“We don’t use this as a way to devalue our diploma or to reduce rigor, but we do have some students who benefit from this program,” said Key. “Some of the challenges our students face are not going away. Wefeel like the program has helped the students it’s designed to help.”

The 2012 and 2013 graduation seasons each had 143 graduates who completed the 21-credit general diploma program out of 179 and 180 applicants. In 2011, of the 186 who applied, 134 students graduated.

Out of the 2,450 students in the 2013 cohort, or students who entered ninth grade and graduated four years later, 1,951 graduated.

“I was hoping that we would have seen a decline in the numbers of these applicants and the numbers of these awards because we talked about this as a kind of one-time kind of strategy, that we had a group of kids who were behind,” said board member Natalie Beyer. “It doesn’t look like we’re starting to see any declines in those numbers yet.”

Many of these students are in their fifth or sixth year of high school. The application process must be completed by students and their parents with the help of high school counselors. Key said that district officials review each application and personally get to know each student and their family.

Overall, the Board of Education seems pleased with the program’s success.

“I’m glad there’s a safety net,” said Minnie Forte-Brown, board vice chair. “Our kids are getting a credential that has been approved by the state of North Carolina that allows them to graduate from high school. It’s not a GED, but a high school diploma. I’m glad we decided to do that as a board.”

Broken down by school, Jordan High had the most 21-credit graduates in 2013 with 33, followed by Riverside with 22, Hillside with 21 and Southern School of Energy and Sustainability with 18.

The larger number of students at Jordan and Riverside using the 21-credit diploma program is being attributed to “the larger student population” with no “unique trends among Jordan students that would lead to a general increase,” Key said.

There were no 21-credit general diploma graduates from Durham School of the Arts or J.D. Clement Early College High School.

Board member Leigh Bordley said that the low numbers are a red flag for her. She said that she thought “we should have students who are struggling distributed equally across our schools. I wish I could say it just makes me happy, but it doesn’t in comparison to the other schools.”

This program is not advertised and students are approached by administrators who think they’ll benefit from the program. Administrators noted three cases last year of students who were eligible for the program that turned it down because they felt the 28-credit diploma was more in line with their goals.