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Chicago, Rochester Offer Flexible Graduation Options

Two urban school districts -- Rochester, New York, and Chicago, Illinois -- are launching programs this fall that will allow students to graduate from high school in three, four, or five years. The five-year program was introduced as a way to help students who might have trouble graduating in the traditional four years to experience success rather than failure. The program allows students who have difficulty with certain courses, such as math or science, to complete them over a year and a half or two years instead of one.

Students in Rochester, New York, and Chicago, Illinois, will soon be able to opt for an additional year to complete high school, rather than consider dropping out to avoid completing requirements.

Both school systems plan to launch programs in the fall of 2001 that will allow students to graduate in three, four, or five years. School staff members plan to identify students in middle school who might have trouble graduating in the traditional four years. Their class schedules would be designed so they could cover the material in five years.

On the other hand, more advanced students would be given the chance in seventh and eighth grades and during the summers to take extra courses so they could graduate in three years.


Rochester and Chicago are the only two districts so far to adopt these types of programs, according to American Federation of Teachers records, said Jamie Horwitz, an AFT spokesman. The AFT proposed the idea of flexible high school programs at its annual conference in July, Horwitz told Education World.

"Some students need a little more time right now," he said. "This removes the onus of being held back. At the same time, if they don't complete all the work, they won't have the skills that they need."

Both the Rochester City School District program, called Pathways to High School Success, and the Chicago Public Schools A.C.E. Flexible High School Plan were developed to help students meet more rigorous requirements. A.C.E. stands for Accelerated (three years), Classical (four years), and Extended (five years.)


Beginning in September 1996, Chicago increased its graduation requirements, mandating that all students complete three years of mathematics, three years of laboratory science, and one year of a foreign language, according to Cozette Buckney, the school system's chief education officer. Some students have been struggling to meet those requirements -- the school system had a dropout rate of about 15.2 percent in 1999-2000, Buckney said. At some high schools, the rate exceeded 40 percent, she said.

Though Chicago schools have allowed some students in the past to graduate in five years, now there will be a formal program, Buckney told Education World. "As we looked at students who were struggling, we wanted to look at what to do to help them," said Buckney. "We have to take away the stigma that high school needs to be completed in four years. We have to get that stigma out of their eyes and their parents'."

About 1,750 students who took five years to complete high school graduated in June, out of a total of 15,000 graduates from Chicago's 77 high schools, Buckney said. She was not certain how many students completed high school in three years. Some seventh and eighth graders already are taking high-school level courses during the school year and in the summer, Buckney added, and the number of students entering high school at grade level is increasing.

The five-year program will allow students who have difficulty with certain courses, such as math or science, to complete them over a year and a half or two years instead of one, Buckney said. Some students in the extended program also may be able to catch up and graduate in four years, she said.

School officials also are working with social services agencies to provide support to students. "We're trying to look at the outside issues [that affect school performance]," said Buckney.


Rochester school officials had similar concerns about meeting the needs of struggling students, who face additional state graduation requirements in 2003. Those requirements mandate that all students pass state regents exams in major subject areas in order to graduate, according to a Rochester school official who spoke anonymously. "[The new graduation option] was in large part prompted by the requirements for a regents diploma," he said.

More than 6 percent of students currently need between four and a half and six years to graduate, according to information from the school system. "With no formal five-year program in place, these students must fail several times in order to receive the instruction they need to graduate," according to a memo from Rochester Superintendent of Schools Clifford B. Janey. "If a five-year program were formally adopted, it would be considered an additional type of intervention to help students progress at a pace that promotes success, rather than a consequence of a student's failure."

In the case of the class of 2000, about half of the 2,255 students who entered one Rochester high school in the fall of 1996 were gone by June 2000. Out of the 1,247 who remained, 446 were performing below the level required for graduation. Among the 1,008 who left the district, 143 dropped out and 109 entered a general education diploma program, according to the district.

In the new five-year program, students will be able to take courses for a longer period of time each year, possibly spending double class periods in certain subjects. "This is a way to let them meet the requirements without the stigma of failure," the Rochester school official said.

At the other end of the spectrum, in 1999, about 28 Rochester students completed their high school requirements in three years. Under the Pathways program, students who wish to graduate early would begin taking high school courses in eighth grade. Students in both the three-and five-year programs would be able to take summer courses.


Rochester officials do not expect to spend any extra money in the first year; after that, though, they expect some additional costs for professional development, textbooks, and technology. School administrators plan to research the availability of grant funds for the high school programs.

Chicago officials also expect that A.C.E. will require some additional funding. But the system is anticipating an enrollment increase of about 30,000 students over five years, so that in itself will require larger classes and more teachers, Buckney said.

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World®
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