Herald Photo/File
Herald Photo/File

Last Thursday, a 7-4 vote passed new standards for high school students to achieve in order to graduate. 

No longer will a simple diploma be enough to move on. Additional tasks must be checked off in order for students to achieve graduation status. With the new rules, there are many questions that have not been answered yet but are supposed to be revealed in the coming months.

Current seventh-graders will be the first group of students impacted by the new requirements that mandate they earn an approved diploma, complete either a work-based, service-based, or project-based learning requirement, and pass a post-secondary readiness exam (or equivalent requirement) in a handful of ways. The new requirements aim to better prepare students for entering the workforce, or for those moving on to college, be better prepared for higher learning.

The Graduation Pathways initiative is being met with concern from parents, teachers, and school administrators across the state, as the new rules were released without full detail of what will qualify for each of the three required elements for graduation. Some have expressed concern for special education students who, for some, struggle to meet current guidelines for their diplomas, cost to the students to take the mandatory college assessment tests, and if there will be enough businesses near schools to fill the demand for work-based learning. An overwhelming concern is that Indiana’s dropout rate will increase.

“I question the discriminatory nature of the new graduation requirements, especially for students from a lower socio-economic status, students in special education, students with English as a learned language, students enrolled in alternative education programs, and students who are not ready to choose a career pathway when they are 14 or 15 years old,” said Kokomo High School Principal Angela Blessing. 

Kokomo School Corporation Superintendent Dr. Jeff Hauswald said, “I do fear this final product passed by the Indiana Board of Education could result in harm to some of our most vulnerable children and lead to an increase in Indiana’s dropout rate.”

Schools will have to review their course offerings to ensure they will meet the criteria to qualify for the new standards. 

“What we’re looking at is that we’re going to have to adjust a lot of things,” said Western Principal Rick Davis. “We’ll have to find some of those other experiences, so the students can check the boxes so that they can graduate.

“For the honors kids, it shouldn’t be that dramatic. It’s the other significant percentage of students that are uncertain about their path or don’t really know what their future plans are as an eighth grader or freshman. The difficulty there is to get them the best shot at graduating, is to put them on some sort of a career path that may or may not be a good fit at that age. I know when I was an eighth grader or freshman I certainly didn’t think I would be a high school principal.”

It is unclear whether the schools will have to bear the burden of transporting students to their service-, work- or project-based learning experiences or even if there will be enough businesses to fill the demand for internships or service projects.

“We’re close enough to Kokomo, but some may not have the opportunities that we do,” said Eastern Howard School Corporation Interim Superintendent Dr. Keith Richie. “They are going to want us to get kids internships and apprenticeships. My question is are there enough businesses around that are going to be able to accommodate all of the kids? How are we going to get the kids to these unpaid jobs? Who’s going to be responsible for them?”

Northwestern School Corporation Superintendent Ryan Snoddy said, “The unknown is the employability skills. It really is an unknown to that there is at least one option, through locally developed programs. I think we can locally develop something, but it is going to put a hardship on students being released to take care of service-based learning or work-based learning experiences. We do not have a wealth of internships right now. We do some job shadowing but most of that is student-generated. If they come to us and say they want to do it, we will make arrangements for them to.”

Even with the uncertainty, the local school corporations have been following the new initiative closely, looking for possible tie-ins to current curriculum and looking for ways to modify courses to fulfill the new requirements.

“The hard part is that we start to look at something, and there really hasn’t been any true guidance on the local pathways are or how they could work. So, you tentatively plan things and say, ‘It would be great if we had a pathway that ties into this,’” Davis said. “We certainly don’t want to lose sight of our fine arts because the way the program is set up. It has a potential to negatively impact the fine arts programming in all schools because those will be electives kids will have to opt out of to get the other courses.”

Taylor School Corporation Superintendent Chris Smith talked about the concerns for special education students that will, as of what is being presented at this time, be required to fulfill the same requirements as general education students. 

“When you have special needs students with individual learning plans, you’re going to have kids that will have to take Algebra I and Algebra II and pass it, and that could be impossible,” he said. “I believe in change. I want change to help our kids, but there is just so much unknown here.”

No matter what lies ahead in the coming months, as the Indiana State Board of Education works to refine the of the qualifications for the new graduation plan, each school system was adamant that they will work to give the students the best-possible options to fulfill the new requirements as they are made available. 

Schools can adopt local pathways that can be submitted for approval by the state. What qualifies as a local pathway, though, has not been identified yet, but many of the schools already are working on possible pathways for consideration.

“We have some project-based learning experiences that we can develop locally to meet that need, but we want to do that with finality. And we want to do that in an effective manner for our kids. I don’t want to create something that is a hoop for them to jump through that is not meaningful and productive for the students,” Snoddy said.

State Superintendent Dr. Jennifer McCormick was also disappointed with the passing of the new requirements but is confident the program will be instituted appropriately.

“Although disappointed in the vote, I’m extremely proud of our K-12 colleagues. They continue to be tireless advocates for our children and have remained student focused throughout this process,” she said. “It is clear our Indiana educators are committed to being part of a solution to workforce and higher education concerns. The Department will continue working with our legislators, concentrating on successful implementation of the Graduation Pathways, and collaborating with all those who work on behalf of our students.”