Every day or two I receive some sort of notice about Hansie’s high school graduation– cap and gown rentals, announcement purchases, photos, award ceremonies, parties…. and then, the almost apologetic letters from his extremely nice counselor, “Your high school senior is NOT on track for graduation. But I know he’s trying.” Sometimes she adds a smiley face.
People think we’re joking when we say, “IF Hansie graduates.” but it’s a very real possibility he’ll sing with the madrigals that day, high-five his friends and not pick up a diploma. Why? Because Utah graduation requirements are bunk.
Among all the whining and moaning in the Utah Legislature about how few students are actually college ready (25% last year) and how many students waste their senior year of high school, no one discusses the thousands of high achieving scholars, musicians and athletes who struggle to graduate because they’ve chosen to take difficult classes and/or participate in extracurricular activities.
Here’s the ugly truth– due to Utah School Board requirements, obtaining an excellent education in Utah remains viable only for the wealthy and the educated. Those who know the system bypass USB requirements in favor of AP Classes, Student Government, music and sports.
Our darling friend Samuel Adams, Deseret News Foreign Language and General Sterling Scholar, National Merit Scholar Finalist and National AP Scholar garnered a stack of awards for his academic excellence in high school, but his counselor reminds him almost daily he probably won’t graduate. “Rather than taking the classes I knew to be a waste of time, I chose classes I knew would prepare me for college and ACT/SAT tests. I don’t take AP classes for the college credit, I take those classes because I want to learn.”
This might sound like a problem only for elite students, but the current requirements affect every high school senior. Those who know the system, choose purposeful classes and deal with the consequences at the end of their senior year. But kids who aren’t familiar with the system, bypass AP classes, Student Government and Swim Team in favor of ‘nanny’ classes required for graduation. College readiness in Utah could improve significantly with modification to core requirements. Utah requires more non-academic, ‘study hall’ classes than any other state.
Let’s take a minute and talk about the ‘study hall’ or ‘nanny’ classes (skills that should be learned at home), ie. Financial Literacy, Computer Tech, Health, Fitness for Life. Don’t get me wrong– these are all valid topics, but in our high schools they consist of about two weeks instruction and a study hall for the rest of the semester. All four classes could be combined into a one semester class– call it Life Skills– and teach the subjects thoroughly and in an engaging manner.
“I was actually excited to take Financial Literacy,” said our lovely Abigail White who recently transferred from Massachusetts, “I love finance and economics and hope to pursue a business degree. But after the first few weeks, the class consisted of a 20-30 minute assignment and then an hour of chatting with friends or studying for other classes.”
West High Senior, Tia Simmonds chose Dance Company, Cheerleading, AP and IB classes over the Utah Board requirements because, “I wanted classes that would prepare me for the future and help me connect with other students. Sure, I could have dropped out of the IB program in favor of Computer Tech, but I’d rather be prepared for college.”
Many frustrations arise from mandatory 2 years P.E. participation (1 credit participation, 1 credit Health/Fitness for Life). Students can receive ½ P. E. credit for two years participation in a school sponsored sport. This means students can play several sports, devote themselves to practices, nutrition and competition and still need to take P. E. classes in high school. Sadly, club sports such as lacrosse, Ultimate Frisbee, fencing and rugby don’t count towards any credit.
Numerous studies reveal involvement in high school activities such as sports, music, government, clubs, combat depression in teens. Requiring student to waste their time in ‘study hall’ classes, deprives them of valuable experiences.
High school counselors are kept busy sending out notices to seniors who need 7 or 8 quarters worth of credit in these study hall subjects. How can they fulfill these requirements outside of the classroom? Students can take free online classes through Utah Electronic High School or Connections Academy. While online classes are free, they are also much more time consuming than the courses they replace and require the use of a computer. For students who work after school, take demanding classes and/or participate in other school activities, online classes are nearly impossible to complete. Using the second option, students gain credit through third party providers such as BYU Independent Study or Northridge Learning Center. At Northridge, students pay $50 for a learning packet. Students average 10-15 hours filling out each packet, take a test and receive credit for the high school course. The most popular classes are Financial Literacy and Computer Tech.
Northridge– which has lines spilling out the door this time of year– provides the easiest and simplest method for fulfilling graduation requirements. But at a cost of $50 per quarter of credit (with many students buying 6-8 packets) the luxury of bypassing study hall courses and taking academic classes in high school becomes a privilege for those who can literally afford the $300-$400 price tag.
Interestingly enough, if you visit one of Northridge Learning Center’s five Salt Lake/Orem locations, the students will tell you they actually enjoy the packets. When learning materials are condensed into 85-120 page packets, the subject matter remains fresh and interesting. When that same coursework is spread over a semester, students don’t take the subject seriously and retain less knowledge.
“Something needs to change,” said Skyline Senior, Sarah Casell, “I need to be preparing for six AP tests right now, but I’m busy filling out six packets.” Sarah’s experiences as girls’ tennis team captain, debate captain, serving in student government, starting her own service group and 11 AP classes earned her acceptance to Berkeley. “But let’s see if I actually graduate. I’m taking extremely demanding IB Economics but they won’t waive my Financial Literacy requirement. I’m lucky that my parents will pay for the packets; if I had to take these classes online, I wouldn’t have time for sports, debate and service club.”
Both Ben and Stefan struggled with this same problem– Stefan actually spent all of Spring Break his senior year at the Juvenile Detention Center filling out packets (we hadn’t discovered Northridge back then). You might think I’ve learned my lesson and will make Xander take the nanny classes in school, but I’m encouraging him to follow in his brothers’ footsteps. Even with early morning seminary and deciding not to pursue student government next year, Xander doesn’t have time in his schedule for useless classes. People often ask my boys how they obtain perfect ACT scores. And they’ll tell you– by taking hard classes. It only makes sense that AP Chemistry, Calculus and Honors English offer better preparation for college testing than Fitness for Life.
We’re lucky we can afford the Northridge packets. But Utah State Graduation Requirements make AP/IB Classes, Student Government, sports teams, drama and music an extravagance for elite students who know how to work the system and buy their class credits. According to the 2014 ACT report only 25% of Utah high school grads are fully college-ready. How many students would take accelerated classes or participate in school activities if graduation requirements were modified? It’s time to drop the nanny classes.