Payson Schools Leery Of Early Graduation

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Payson schools aren’t ready to jump into a plan to encourage students to finish high school early, but they’re definitely standing on the end of the pier thinking about it.

Last year, the state Legislature laid the groundwork for a system that would allow high school students to pass their graduation tests and get a diploma at the end of their sophomore year.

In theory, that would free bright, self-motivated students to get a head start on either a college degree or vocational training — and maybe help them cut the cost of a college degree dramatically.

Payson Unified School District Superintendent Casey O’Brien said this week that he’s investigating launching the system here, but that several major questions will likely stall a decision.

“Realistically, this will likely apply to only a very limited number of students,” said O’Brien. “In theory, it gives kids more flexibility. But the funding is complex.”

Statewide, 14 schools have so far signed up to participate in the “Move On When Ready" program, which would award sophomores or juniors a “Grand Canyon diploma” if they work their way through a specialized, accelerated curriculum and passed tests to determine whether they’d mastered the necessary concepts and skills.

The program requires participating schools to train their teachers in one of two, national curriculums, linked to a national set of “common core standards” developed by the federal Department of Education.

The district must invest several thousand dollars to train each teacher participating in the program.

As students finished the courses designed by either Cambridge International or ACT QualityCore, they would take nationally-normed board exams. They would not then have to pass the AIMS test, an Arizona-only test of basic skills required for high school graduation.

If they passed those tests they would get a separate high school diploma, probably at the end of their sophomore year or maybe by the end of their junior year.

Students could then start a career, signup for vocational or technical training classes or get started on a college degree, either through dual enrollment courses at the local community college or some sort of transfer program involving one of the state’s universities.

However, they probably couldn’t actually enroll in one of the universities, since they probably wouldn’t have had time to complete all the science, math and language courses required for admission to any of the state’s three public universities, O’Brien said.

Advocates for the new approach hope that it would attract students bored with conventional high school classes who might otherwise drop out. Currently, only 71 percent of the state’s high school students end up graduating — compared to 73 percent nationally.

However, skeptics say that the program will likely attract only the most disciplined and advanced students, who weren’t dropout risks in the first place. However, those students could get a jump start on college by taking classes on their high school campus or the community college campus.

In that case, they could cut one or two years off the time they spend in school before getting a college degree — which would effectively reduce the cost of a degree by 25 percent or more. The federal department of education this week released figures indicating that college students graduating with a bachelor’s degree have an average student debt load of $25,000.

Universities and community colleges in Arizona so far have a much bigger problem with getting students through in four years than they have in offering accelerated programs.

Currently, 60 percent of high school graduates who enroll in Arizona community colleges have to take remedial classes in reading, writing or math before they can undertake college-level work. In addition, only 27 percent of the students who enroll at ASU as freshmen end up actually earning their degree within four years — and only 55 percent complete their degree within six years.

O’Brien said the district faces some significant hurdles in implementing the “Move On When Ready” program here.

The district may not have the critical mass of students and parents interested in the program, he said.

The district struggles to fill its advanced placement courses, which offer students a chance to get college credit for a high school class.

Even when students sign up for the advanced placement classes here, many don’t score well enough on the exit test to qualify for college credits.

The district also has a deepening relationship with Gila Community College so that high school students can get dual credit for some classes taken from GCC instructors. In some cases, high school teachers with the right certification can also teach classes on the high school campus for which students get college credit.

“Move On When Ready” could overlap and perhaps compete with those other programs for the already small pool of students likely to participate, said O’Brien.

The superintendent said the financial impact of the program also remains unclear.

Some critics have suggested that the real goal of “Move On When Ready” is to hurry students to their B.A. by pasting together an assortment of classes that may lack the rigor or coherence of university level classes.

O’Brien said K-12 districts would continue to get about 80 percent of the normal state support for each student who earned a Grand Canyon diploma who continued to take advanced classes either on the high school campus or at the community college.

“In effect, the community college and the district share the money, which follows the student,” said O’Brien.

O’Brien said the district is investigating details of the program and trying to determine whether enough high school students would participate to make it worthwhile.

He said the program might make a lot more senses in Payson if the town ends up with a four-year college campus. In that case, local students who earned their diploma in their sophomore year would have a lot more options for classes they could take in their junior and senior years without leaving home.

“If ASU comes, then I see a lot more potential for the program here,” said O’Brien. “But we’ll definitely be exploring it.”

Nonetheless, he said the district won’t be among the pioneering schools planning to introduce the program next year.

Arizona at the moment leads the nation with the “Move On When Ready” approach, with 17 of the 21 schools nationwide launching the program next year.

O’Brien said the district could jump into the program in another year or two, depending, perhaps, on what happens with the plans to bring a university to town.

“We don’t have to start out with the freshmen. You could also earn the Grand Canyon diploma at the end of the junior year. So if students moved into college classes in their senior year of high school, they’re still getting a degree in three years instead of four.”

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