Pilot program could change traditional high school structure

By CHRIS KIEFFER / NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Tupelo’s superintendent and a district school board member will be among those attending a presentation on Tuesday regarding a program that could allow some high school students to graduate after 10th grade.
Superintendent Randy Shaver said he and board member Eddie Prather will attend the presentation by the United States Department of Education. It will be at the state Department of Education headquarters in Jackson.
The Tupelo and Corinth school districts are among seven Mississippi districts that have been invited to study the possibility of piloting the program, which would give students options other than the traditional high school diploma and would be designed to better prepare students for college.
Other participating districts in the state include Jackson, Madison County, Gulfport, Canton and Clarksdale.
Planning is still preliminary, and neither Tupelo nor Corinth has committed to the program.
Corinth Schools Superintendent Lee Childress and Shaver were both out of town last week for the Thanksgiving holiday and could not be reached for comment.
Students who opt to participate in the program would take an exam at the end of the 10th grade. It would be based upon board exams that students in many countries take at age 16 and would measure students’ preparedness for college.
Those who don’t pass the exam would remain in school and work to improve remedial skills. Students who do pass would be given several options:
• Graduate from high school and enter a community college program.
• Graduate from high school and enter the work force.
• Opt for a dual enrollment, taking some high school courses and some for-credit community college courses.
• Enroll in the upper-division program, which would prepare them for four-year college institutions.
Apart from those options, a traditional four-year diploma would continue to be available.
Shaver said via e-mail last week that the program would be reflective of the European model of secondary education. He said in most developed countries, “students graduate from 10th grade and then go on to either the work force, trade school or university prep classes.”
Shaver said the program is also designed to lead to early graduation for students who would otherwise drop out.
Representatives from Tupelo and the other six districts already have attended one meeting about the program.
Earlier this month, Dr. Susan Sclafani, director of State Services at the National Center on Education and the Economy, presented an overview on Exploring High School Structure at the MDE.
MDE spokeswoman Wendy Polk said in an e-mail that it was “an informational meeting to focus on ways to reduce the dropout rate and improve educational outcomes.”
Childress said in an earlier interview with the Daily Corinthian that the state is offering assurances that it will work to remove barriers to the program, such as funding and agreements that would be necessary with the community colleges.
Mississippi’s four-year graduation rate for the Class of 2009 was 71.6 percent, according to statistics released in July. The dropout rate for that class was 16.8 percent.
Corinth graduated 77 percent of its students in that class, and Tupelo graduated 71.1 percent with a 20.1 percent dropout rate.
“We know some children just aren’t going to go to school past 16 years of age, whether you like it or not,” Childress said.
Ten states – Arizona, Connecticut, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York and Vermont – have expressed interest in the project, which would begin in the fall of 2011 for districts that choose to participate.
The Gates Foundation has provided a $1.5 million planning grant and an additional $3.2 million over the next two years.
The system could benefit advanced students who lack only a couple of required credits by the time they reach their senior year and are not being challenged, Childress said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or chris.kieffer@djournal.com.