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Guest Melissa Bailey

What Does A High School Diploma Mean?

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Guest Melissa Bailey

The school board has begun to tighten graduation requirements in effort to keep kids from arriving to college unprepared. Meanwhile, New Haven’s experimental high school is going straight to the Capitol for a fundamental fix to the same problem.

In two separate moves that took place this month, the New Haven Public Schools and its union-run “turnaround” experiment, High School in the Community, took steps to tackle the same problem: Too many kids are passing through city schools without acquiring the skills they need to take basic college courses.

One startling study found that 89 percent of New Haven Public School graduates who enroll in Connecticut public colleges and universities needed to catch up in English and math before they can start earning credits.

That’s partially a reflection of the state’s rules for who needs to take remedial courses—rules that are being dramatically overhauled.

But it’s also a reflection of a challenge for which school officials are taking more responsibility as the city’s school reform drive moves to hold high schools accountable for how their kids fare in college.

School officials on Monday unveiled a few changes to its graduation requirements, including adding one year of technology and of world history; two years of study in the same foreign language; and four years of math instead of just three. The technology class will be required beginning with the Class of 2016.

Overall, the district bumped up the total credits needed from 22 to 25.5. Individual schools already set their own requirements above the district’s mandated minimum levels. Many magnet schools were already meeting these standards, noted Assistant Superintendent Imma Canelli, who presented the changes before the school board.

The changes aim to align the city with new admission rules set to take effect in 2015 at state universities, Canelli said.

“Part of this is to cut down the number of students who have to take remedial education going into college,” explained Superintendent Reggie Mayo.

The announcement prompted a discussion about how kids fare after leaving city high schools, and what their diplomas really mean.

“How do you demonstrate mastery of these courses?” Mayor John DeStefano asked.

Unlike places like New York, Connecticut has no standardized test that kids have to pass to leave high school. Sophomores must take the Connecticut Academic Performance Test; if they fail it they make it up by completing a project. The district has its own quarterly assessments, which factor into a kid’s grade in a given course. But ultimately the diploma is based on each teacher’s determination of whether a kid has passed a given class, where passing is anything higher than an F.

DeStefano asked how well New Haven’s high school curriculum prepare kids for success at the colleges it most frequently sends students to—Gateway Community College, Southern Connecticut State University, and the University of Connecticut. Does the school system track kids’ success in college by subject area?

The answer is no—the school system would need to have individual contracts with each university, said Assistant Superintendent Garth Harries. DeStefano urged the city to start examining this data, either through the school board or New Haven Promise, the city’s college scholarship program.

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