Different high school diploma options give students flexibility


Loften High School seniors, from left, Daniel Sjoden, 17, Cyron Ferguson, 17, and David Williams work on a car during their Academy of Automotive Technology class Thursday.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Sunday, April 28, 2013 at 6:17 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, April 28, 2013 at 8:48 p.m.

Editor's note: This is the final part of a two-day look at the sweeping education bill signed this past week by Gov. Rick Scott. Today's story looks at the impact on public schools.

Education in Florida will see some drastic changes in the near future.

A landmark bill signed on April 22 by Gov. Rick Scott seeks to restructure and improve the state's education system and affects every grade level from kindergarten through college.

Of particular interest in Alachua County, the bill will alleviate some of the pressure that was placed on high school students in 2010 when more difficult graduation requirements were established.

Under Senate Bill 1076, students still must meet academic requirements in English, math, science and social studies courses but the level of study would differ based on the diploma for which the student is aiming.

Students can earn a “standard'' diploma by taking Algebra I and biology. Those who take and pass more advanced courses such as Algebra 2 and physics or chemistry can earn a “scholar” diploma.

Students can earn a “merit” diploma by achieving industry certifications through technical programs in lieu of traditional math, science and English courses, although they would still have to pass Algebra 1.

The bill also calls on school districts to work with local industry to determine workforce needs and to put a renewed emphasis on digital skills and online education. A provision for establishing a “financial literacy” program was tacked onto requirements for social studies programs.

Alachua County School Board chairwoman Eileen Roy said that, although the state hasn't made clear its plan for implementing the different diploma tracks, she's glad there will be a technical option.

“The new graduation requirements (prior to SB 1076) assume that every person that graduates from high school is going to college,” she said, which creates the potential for a significantly higher dropout rate. Not every student will be able to pass the more advanced end-of-course exams, she said.

There is already an emphasis on career and technical training in the Alachua County school district.

Six of the seven public high schools operated by Alachua County Public Schools have career/technical academies in place. There are a total of 11 academies in the district, and all are open by application to students in any zone.

Most of the academies are housed inside traditional high schools. Santa Fe High School has a biotechnology academy and an agriscience academy; Gainesville High School offers a health sciences academy; Buchholz High School has a dual finance and entrepreneurship academy; Eastside High School has a culinary arts academy; and Newberry High School features a criminal justice academy.

Although students get hands-on training in each field, not every career/technical magnet at those schools offers industry certifications.

Dave Edwards, director of career/technical education for Alachua County Public Schools, said he wasn't sure how much the new law would open up more opportunities for certification.

“I would think it would have the possibility of being able to really expand career and tech ed depending on the demand,” but it's difficult for any school district to create new programs without the state allocating extra money, he said.

Industry certifications must be administered by an agency outside the school system, such as the Red Cross or the Department of Children and Families.

Another obstacle to expanding certification options would be persuading those agencies to work with the schools.

“You're asking some other group to take on something without them knowing if that's going to be a profitable venture for them,” he said.

The Professional Academies Magnet at Loften High School houses the four remaining career and technical programs in the district: fire and emergency services, design and technology, early childhood education and automotive.

Students can be certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence or the Department of Children and Families, or become certified as a first responder or to use Adobe software professionally.

Loften Principal Chet Sanders said he's glad the state has decided to abandon the one-size-fits-all graduation requirements established in 2010. There's a huge need in the workforce for technical training, he said.

Sanders said he hopes the different diploma tracks will demonstrate to parents that there are viable options for postsecondary education other than a traditional four-year university. His students often go on to two-year programs and technical schools, and focusing on those goals while still in high school helps them plan ahead, he said.

“That can be just as valuable a track for a student as a four-year university track,” he said.

Regardless of what they choose to do after high school, students who enroll in career/technical programs tend to finish strong, said Alachua County Public Schools spokeswoman Jackie Johnson.

During the 2011-12 school year, Alachua County high school students earned 216 industry certifications and a total of 1,658 credit hours at Santa Fe College.

Also during that year, the graduation rate for Alachua County students who took at least three career/technical courses during high school was 93 percent. The overall graduation rate for the county was 78 percent.

Nearly 86 percent of the students who took three or more career/technical courses went on to college, technical training or a job.

“Obviously students in those career/technical programs do very well,” Johnson said. “It makes them so much more employable right out of high school.”

Contact Erin Jester at 338-3166 or erin.jester@gvillesun.com. Lloyd Dunkelberger contributed to this report.

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