Kentucky School Advocate
By Madelynn Coldiron
When the legislature approved a bill last year allowing students to graduate early if they meet a set of academic benchmarks, Carter County Schools didn’t miss a beat in getting the word out to its students and parents.
Curtis Fields didn’t miss a beat, either. The junior at East Carter High School immediately signed up.
PHOTO: East Carter High School juniors, from left, Gage Tomaselli, MaKenzie Messer and Sarah Griffith decompress after taking an AP language exam.
“I’m just ready for college. I already know my career path,” said Fields, who’s headed to Morehead State University to study biomedical sciences with the goal of becoming a pharmacist or a pharmaceutical engineer.
Fields’ grandmother, with whom he lives, is equally enthusiastic about it. “I absolutely love it for him,” Rhonda Hall said. “For someone such as Curtis who has such goals and he’s driven educational-wise, this is a very wise move for him.”
Fields is one of 18 students at Carter County’s two high schools who were prospective early graduates this year. The pathway was created by the state legislature in 2014, meant to be companion to a law that raised the dropout age to 18.
He typifies Carter County school board Chairman Bryan Greenhill’s description of this group of students: “They’re a little more self-motivated than some kids are,” he said. “And those kids – I don’t mean this in a bad way – may be a little bored at the high school level and they’re ready to be challenged down the road because they have worked hard to get to that point.”
To be eligible to graduate early, students must meet college and career readiness benchmarks on the ACT or other college readiness exam, and take the classes and meet proficiency benchmarks on the four end-of-course assessments (English II, algebra II, biology and U.S. history). Minimum-credit requirements do not apply if these conditions are met.
Statewide, about 300 students applied for early graduation in 89 high schools in 63 school districts, with an equitable demographic and geographic mix across the state, said Kelly Clark, a literacy specialist at the state education department who works with the program. Half of those are juniors, who could graduate with the class of 2015. KDE anticipated just 100 students would opt for the track this first year.
At East Carter High, 19 students signed up. By the end of the year, 14 were still on board, pending EOC or ACT results. Most are college-bound rather than workforce-bound, guidance counselor Sheila Porter said, and a few were 18 and wanted to enter the military. Principal Larry Kiser said some, like Fields, are looking at careers that require eight or more years of schooling and want to get a head start.
Laying the groundwork
Carter County Schools held informational meetings for both East and West Carter County high schools in spring 2014 and sent letters about early graduation home to all middle school through 11th graders.
The informational meetings, along with a brochure, laid out the criteria so students and parents would know what was involved. “We didn’t want the whole class to think they needed to graduate early because obviously, they all don’t need to do that,” Superintendent Ronnie Dotson said.
“They’re not all ready at that point in their life for the independence of college and the responsibility of it.”
Parents have generally been supportive, though a bit apprehensive, Porter said. Greenhill said he’s spoken with parents of one of this year’s prospective early graduates, who was concerned about a 17-year-old living on a college campus. While these students may be prepared academically, they may not be mature in other ways, he said.
“It’s different from going to camp for a week or even if they’re going to Governor’s Scholars for five or six weeks during the summer around kids their own age,” he said.
Before Dotson and Kiser signed off on the students’ letter of intent, both high schools gathered a team during the summer whose members met one-on-one with individual parents and interested students.
“We talked about test scores, what they would need to do to be able to get through the program,” Porter said. Similar steps were taken with students who made their decision in the fall.
The one-on-one is valuable, she added, because it establishes a relationship so students feel comfortable asking for help later if they need it. Early graduation team members also checked in at least once during the year with each student.
The school offered tutoring for early graduation candidates who needed it and provided ACT vouchers for those who wanted to take the test again (up to three times) to better their score.
“I know they’re under a lot of pressure when they have to take these tests,” Porter said.
Sarah Griffith, another East Carter junior on the early graduation track this year, said while she feels ready for college, she was feeling tense this year, with the testing and college visits. “It’s kind of stressful, but I knew it was going to happen sometime,” said Griffith, who plans to study diagnostic medical sonography at Morehead State.
She and Fields said they had no regrets about missing their senior year, something that is a factor for other students who might otherwise opt for an early departure. Kiser said early graduation track students were offered the option of going through the graduation ceremony this year or returning for next year’s ceremony. All opted to walk the stage this year.
All the Carter County students shooting for early graduation in 2015 are juniors; East Carter has eight younger students in that pipeline for the future – at least two rising freshmen and three rising juniors, with applications being processed for three other students. Kiser and Porter aren’t sure why the numbers dipped.
Kiser said he believes the program will never achieve huge numbers. “I think there’s going to be a select few year to year,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to be something that’s going to grow.”
“It was never meant to be a big program – it was very targeted for students who were already accelerated,” Clark agreed. “I think it’s going to stabilize and it probably will end up being closer to the 100 that we initially anticipated.”