By Madelynn Coldiron
A high-performing Owsley County High School student is passionate about cars as a career, has met the state’s college readiness standards and completed his required end-of-course exams. While still a high school student, he has a chance to attend the area technology center in neighboring Lee County full time to pursue his interest.
Question: Should he still have to take required years of math and English at his high school?
PHOTO:Danville High School sophomore Byron Railey is working on getting his pilot’s license as part of his internship with the Danville-Boyle County Regional Airport. Opportunities for students like this are one reason the district is requesting a waiver of graduation requirements.Photo provided by Danville Independent Schools
“Our position on it is if kids have met their benchmarks that are set by our state … then why should we hold them back?” Owsley County Schools Superintendent Dr. Tim Bobrowski said.
The state Board of Education agreed, when it granted the district a waiver of state graduation requirements last fall, with a list of stipulations. Similar requests from other districts are not far behind.
Danville Independent Superintendent Dr. Carmen Coleman said she has met with her high school principal, guidance counselor and others in preparation for requesting a waiver.
“What we’ve done is try to think about students that we have and how it might look for different students and how it might change the experience,” she said. “We are very flexible in trying to customize now. But what (the waiver) does is just helps officially clear the way.”
Taylor County Superintendent Roger Cook said his district’s request for a graduation requirement waiver will be heard at the April state board meeting.
He said he thinks graduation requirements have not kept pace with the changes that have been made in other aspects of the state’s education system, such as the new accountability system ushered in by Senate Bill 1.
“We don’t have to cookie cutter every person’s education – we can tailor it to their interest,” he said.
All three districts are designated Districts of Innovation, but the graduation requirement requests, while dovetailing with their innovation plans, stand alone.
Cook and Coleman think more districts will be asking for the waiver.
“I really think that you’re going to see more and more superintendents personalize learning and asking for ways to prevent dropouts and get these kids career ready,” Cook said.
KDE’s staff made a similar prediction in recommending the Owsley County waiver to the state school board last fall, noting, “With the new focus on college readiness, more and more districts are realizing that a meaningful senior year of high school cannot be achieved without the flexibility to allow students to participate in learning opportunities aligned to their career pathway that may be better achieved without meeting the specific course requirements of 704 KAR 3:305.”
“I do suspect that increasingly our districts will be interested in giving seniors the flexibility to pursue their personal interests, professional interests, if you will, if they’ve met the ACT benchmarks,” said Kentucky Board of Education Vice Chairwoman Brigitte Blom Ramsey. “So I think giving our students that flexibility if they’ve already indicated through their performance that they’re college-ready is beneficial to our students.”
The board’s waiver for Owsley County Schools changes only the makeup of required courses; students still need 22 credit hours to graduate. And David Cook, director of the state education department’s Division of Innovation and Partner Engagement, said waiving the graduation requirement does not necessarily equate with early graduation, which is governed by a separate state regulation. Instead, he said, it means that a student has proven he or she has mastered content and met benchmarks and can now tackle options that will help prepare for a career.
State school board Chairman Roger Marcum, a former superintendent, said the board’s action is in line with the ongoing focus on innovation, flexibility and the search for different pathways to student success.
“I think opening the door to innovation and creative ways to meet the learning standards, Kentucky core standards, is a good thing …. There’s not one formula for meeting those standards and I believe in local control, so I think if a district can come forth with an innovative approach that still meets those common core standards that we’ve identified, I’m supportive of that as a board member,” he said.
Marcum said the board has not dipped into the overarching issue of revamping graduation requirements.
“In my mind, it’s a possibility, but I’m not speaking for the entire board because we haven’t had that discussion,” he said.
“It’s a good question that maybe the board could ask: What do our requirements look like as far as coursework relative to the new accountability system? And are they still relevant? I do think that the litmus test has to be how are we doing in terms of getting kids prepared for college, and right now our indicator of that is the ACT benchmarks,” said Ramsey, a former Pendleton County school board member.
How waivers will be used
The superintendents say the graduation requirement waivers will provide flexibility in a variety of situations. Owsley County Schools’ Chief Academic Officer Paul Green supplied the real-life example at the top of this story.
Bobrowski said it is key to more personalized learning, and the district also is planning for employment opportunities for students, though at this point he said the waiver might benefit only five to 10 students.
Cook is touting work opportunities and job internships for Taylor County students with the waiver, but also plans to continue the personalized learning approach that tailors courses to students’ interests as a motivator to keep them from dropping out – a key to his district’s zero dropout record.
The current requirements also hamper the performance-based system used in his district’s schools. He said 40
Taylor County High seniors will graduate this year as mid-term college sophomores, for example. He estimated the waiver, if granted by the state school board, would affect 10 to 20 percent of the district’s 3,000 students.
Danville’s Coleman said her staff is now trying to figure out some options for a sophomore who’s already met the state’s benchmarks, and she envisions other opportunities.
“So when we have a student who has an opportunity to do something, say a math course through MIT – those kinds of things are out there – we’re going to work that out,” she said. “We’re not going to let a student miss an opportunity because goodness, you don’t have all your math credits; we’re going to try to find a way to make that work. This just ensures that you’re able to maximize for every student.”
Coleman said part of the district’s innovation plan calls for student internships and the like, so the graduation requirement waiver “frees up even more opportunities.” It also may allow for independent study or service learning, she added.
Green said the flexibility in the requirement can even act as “a huge carrot” in getting students to think much earlier about their future.
“Now we can tell kids, freshmen and sophomores, hey, look what we can offer you once you’ve met your college readiness benchmark. Kids now are focused on college readiness at the freshman and sophomore level as opposed to waiting until their senior year,” Green said.