School leaders support new high school model

By CHRIS KIEFFER / NEMS Daily Journal

High school students could see more demanding courses and quicker paths to graduation if a new pilot program is successful.
Those students could enroll as freshmen in a rigorous two-year program with a curriculum based on international standards.
If successful in the program, they would have several options, including graduating after their sophomore year.
“The current high school model doesn’t work for a significant number of students,” said Mississippi Superintendent of Education Tom Burnham. “We’re engaged in taking a look at a much higher expectation of high school.”
Mississippi is one of 10 states invited to pilot the program, which was developed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Center of Education and the Economy.
The Mississippi Department of Education has asked seven districts, including Tupelo and Corinth, to learn more about the program and consider piloting it.
Planning is still preliminary and no district has yet committed, but both Tupelo Superintendent Randy Shaver and Corinth Superintendent Lee Childress said they’re very interested.
“It is a new way to provide a high school education to students, and I think it has great potential for many of the students we are serving in our high school today,” Childress said.
With the current model of high school, Burnham said, students who don’t fit in socially often lose focus academically.
Meanwhile, too many students don’t graduate with the skills they need to compete in college and plod through a senior year that is generally not academically challenging.
“For a lot of students who drop out because they are not making grades, it has very little to do with ability,” Burnham said. “We believe if they see a different model that allows those students and parents to have more options, hopefully they will become more engaged.”
The program would be voluntary for students, and those who wanted to continue with the traditional four-year high school path would still have that option. Students in the program who passed a comprehensive board examination after their sophomore year would have four options:
• Enroll in an upper-division program that would prepare them for selective four-year universities.
• Repeat the program to improve their understanding of the subjects studied or remain in school under the traditional four-year path.
• Graduate from high school and enroll in a community college.
• Graduate from high school and enter the work force.
One question the program would raise is: Are 16-year-old students ready for college?
Both Childress and Shaver said that they would absolutely be ready to handle the work academically, although they may not be ready socially.
Those students would not have to live on campus but could take classes or commute from home, if the college was located nearby.
One option could be for school districts to expand dual enrollment courses, in which students can earn community college credits without leaving their school campus.
Although the plan is based upon European and Asian models, in which students also exit secondary education at age 16, students would not be tracked, as they are in some of those models.
“This is not tracking,” Shaver said. “This is optional. No one is tracked into it and no one is required. It is an option for every student.”
Both superintendents said the program would cost their districts about $32,000 total for the first two years. That would include training five teachers to participate and the cost of test materials. Both said they would likely begin with about 32 to 35 students.
Tupelo school board member Eddie Prather, who attended a meeting about the pilot program in Jackson on Tuesday, said he supports the program, as long as the logistics can be worked out.
Burnham said the goal would be to begin the program this fall, although he acknowledged much preparation would need to be done first.
State Board of Education member Claude Hartley, whose board will likely vote on the program at its January meeting, said he is supportive.
“I think the board is always searching for a way to improve the education of boys and girls,” he said, “and this has the possibility of doing that with the options and flexibility it offers.”
Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or chris.kieffer@djournal.com.