if he graduates… or If You Want to Excel in High School You Need to Rebel Against the Utah School Board Requirements


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.

Most likely, Hansie will be fine. We’ll fork over the $350 to basically buy credits and he’ll graduate with his class. But what about the kid who really wanted to take AP Physics and wasted his time in Computer Tech instead? As Skyline senior Jacob Parkin told me, “They expect us to excel, but the requirements make it impossible to graduate.”
As the school year draws to a close, thousands of high school seniors are scrambling to fulfill requirements for the ‘study hall’ classes. Why? Because they’ve chosen to take AP and IB courses, serve in student government, pursue sports, drama, choir, band or orchestra.

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.

May 16, 2015
June 1, 2015



  1. catania

    May 19, 2015


    I don’t actually live in Utah, nor do I have children nearing graduation at this point, so some of this doesn’t really apply to me, but I think that the problems you are facing are probably similar in other states.

    However, I will say that I taught courses for an on-line university. The course I taught was a mandatory English (basic writing) class. I was amazed. There were so many students who seemed unprepared for college. I have heard that many universities have to offer more remedial classes because so many students come in unprepared.

    Actually, this brings up the many issues that we are facing right now with education. Even though we know it doesn’t work, it seems like the system keeps trying to funnel our children into a “one size fits all” package. I’m sure that some of these educators mean well, but it can be very frustrating for both a student and parent.

    Actually, my frustrations with the education system (never with a single teacher – we’ve always been blessed with good teachers) – my frustration with the system at large informed my decision to homeschool.

    Good luck to your family and Hans!

  2. Cath

    May 19, 2015

    you need to submit this to deseret connect.

    • Lisa H

      May 21, 2015

      My thoughts exactly, Cath.

    • mlehnardt8@msn.com

      May 22, 2015

      Actually, I sent it to Deseret Connect a few weeks ago (minus the first three or four paragraphs and other personal stuff). They didn’t even look at it.

  3. Michelle

    May 20, 2015

    I’ll be sending this along to my friend who is in the legislature. I agree with the first commenter that the challenge is likely more systemic in nature, but I appreciate so much your ‘insider’ perspective after being through this a few times.

    I also LOVE how you have gathered real-life experiences and perspectives from students. “Not about them without them” we say at EPIK.

    p.s. If CTE were combined with other classes, it could open up space for actual computer programming classes to be provided. Utah is building a great tech industry, but consistently has to go outside of the state to find the talent. Arizona has some great things they are doing to bridge the public-private divide to bring more STEM education to kids that the public system simply cannot provide alone.

    • mlehnardt8@msn.com

      May 20, 2015

      Exactly! Let’s do REAL computer programming instead. From what I understand, everyone needs that skill.

      Thanks for always cheering me on.

  4. Ann

    May 20, 2015

    That is INSANE!! Seriously! Lunacy! I’ve never heard anything so crazy. You need to send that to newspapers, senators, congressmen, anyone who will listen. That is ridiculous. But good for you in continuing to encourage your boys to take the hard stuff even though it makes it a big pain to actually graduate!!

  5. Jessica

    May 20, 2015

    Thank you so much for this article! My son will be s freshman next year at Olympus and he sounds very much like your sons. I’m glad to be going in with my eyes open. My daughter arrived in Utah last January looking forward to a new high school experience (coming from a private school in St Louis). They told her to fulfill the Utah graduation requirements she would have to to take nearly a year of extra classes. She chose not to do that and instead took the GED test. She received a Utah State High School Diploma. That, with her excellent ACT scores got her into the college of her choice at 17 years old. I highly recommend this as a viable option. Especially since your son already has a college exceptance.

    • mlehnardt8@msn.com

      May 20, 2015

      I’m glad it worked out for your daughter, but it’s kind of sad. She would have enjoyed her Sr. year at Olympus and she would have added a lot to the school.

  6. Julie

    May 20, 2015

    interesting info. Agree that something needs to change, and glad to know about this now when my oldest is just about to start 6th. My only question is about the rush to finish all the packets – is there a policy they can’t be started until a certain date? If my kids follow this path, I’d hope to have them work on them in the summers throughout high school until waiting until the last minute and having the possibility of not graduating be an option.

    • mlehnardt8@msn.com

      May 20, 2015

      Very true, Julie. We could have worked on the packets during the summers. But everyone lives in hopes that the requirements will change, and lots of people find loopholes for certain classes. In truth, procrastinating has paid off for all three of my boys– they all found a loophole for at least one class.

  7. kirsten

    May 20, 2015

    Oh, man do I have opinions here! will try to only add briefly to this conversation.

    my daughter is finishing her first year at school – her sophomore year. We have homeschooled and she ended up at a really great early college high school a year early. we didn’t plan on her attending high school, but it truly is a great school/opportunity for her. however, that meant our plan of her NOT getting her hs diploma went out the window. so last year, before she started school she was cramming to make up some ‘official’ credits for her transcripts. We used EHS for the dreaded computer tech class (oh, it was awful, time consuming, confusing, and according to my software developer husband – wrong) and english (actually a decent experience). ehs is WAY more work than a regular school class, I think.
    we used northridge learning center for geography and biology. what a joke! those packets may be okay, but that place is awful. we joked that it reeked of despair. 😉 many kids are going for recovery credits, so the company is not used to giving out A’s. they literally FLIP through the packet (like fan it) as you take the test and they only give it a grade that end with 0 (70, 80, 90) and they don’t give 100’s basically. so my daughter ended up with an 89.7 after her first packet (and first time taking real tests!). because they randomly assigned her a grade of 80 for her packet. which was 100% complete and correct. Yeah, I talked to them and they chaged her grade to an A. When I asked how to get a 100 on the packet they said ‘every person here grades differently’ and ‘there’s too many packets to REALLY grade them’. So… yeah. that place has had questions about it’s licensure and will again. it shouldn’t be a viable option. it did do the trick for passing off those classes quickly, though.
    interesting that high-achievers are choosing to forfeit their diploma in lieu of what they feel is a real education. yes! i think that our educational system may be forced into a huge overhaul simply by teens in the upcoming generation realizing there are other ways to learn what they want to learn and dropping out. I have been reading ‘The Teenage Liberation Handbook’ which is basically preaching to the choir, but is a great read on better ways to get a ‘real’ education.
    We bought the book to have our daughter read because while she has done SO well this year in high school, she has thought about not returning, simply to avoid the ‘dumb’ classes and hoop jumping and learn what she wants to learn on her own. We would be way cool with that.
    (forgive the length and lack of capitals – i tend to forget them when typing fast! 🙂

  8. aadams

    May 20, 2015

    Spot on! I was on the phone with Northridge yesterday about packets for the summer. Do you have a recommendation other than Northridge for Computer Tech? It seems ridiculous to take computer tech via packets.

    • mlehnardt8@msn.com

      May 20, 2015

      Seriously, Computer Tech may be the stupidest class ever. If I were you I’d live in hope that things will change.

  9. Anne Marie

    May 20, 2015

    Bravo, Michelle! You have done a marvelous job writing about some very concerning issues. Wow! I am floored by the stupidity of some of these rules. I love how you open up these dialogues. And I love how you do your field research and talk with the teens. You have a real gift for putting people at ease and allowing them to speak from a very authentic place. Change obviously needs to take place, and your words could really get some people thinking.

    Schools are really struggling right now. With all the rapid technological advances, the very real fears about job stability, seismic social change, and America’s struggle to keep up with other countries, our children are being taught in a culture of fear and uncertainty. Educators are not really sure what the future looks like so they are scrambling to evolve and adapt. Unfortunately, in this mad mess, some of the most essential pieces of an education (that will be essential no matter what jobs look like in 20 years) are becoming overlooked.

    We live in Texas, and we have had to fight tooth and nail for our son’s academic goals. Like your children, he has been blessed with a very gifted mind. For his second year of school, he wanted to take 6 AP classes (which he was very capable of taking, and he desperately needed in order to stave off the boredom he had known for so many years). Well, the rule for our district was that he could only take 2 AP classes his sophomore year of high school. My husband (who will tenaciously fight for his kids’ educations) spent probably around 40 hours over a course of a month meeting with different administrators and communicating with school boards. Finally, he got permission for our son to take the classes, but they penalized him for it. Most of the classes would only be pass/fail and would not be calculated into his GPA or help his class rank. Why in the world should it be so hard for a student to take challenging classes if he is ready to? My son is graduating next month, and sadly he is graduating with what is called here “a minimum graduation”. If he had applied to any reputable Texas college, the committee would have junked his application immediately just based on that distinction. He opted to take many, many challenging classes but is not much of a hoop jumper so he chose to not take some of the recommended classes that he considered time wasters. (Thankfully BYU didn’t care about this “minimum graduation” so he didn’t care too much either). But, it is ridiculous that my son who took 11 AP classes in two years and got a 36 on the ACT wouldn’t have even stood a chance at the amazing schools down here (because of bureaucratic idiocy).

    Thank you so much for this discussion! I love how you fight for the rights and well-being of your kids and kids everywhere.

    • mlehnardt8@msn.com

      May 20, 2015

      Oh my Anne Marie. I had to read your comment out loud. We are all gasping in shock. But congrats to your son on AP classes and his perfect ACT. Will he be attending BYU this fall? If so, I’ll need to introduce him around.

      • Anne Marie

        May 21, 2015

        Thank you, dear Michelle! Yes! Taylor will start at BYU in the fall. He will be on the young side (turning 18 in November) so he is planning to get some school in before his mission. We are thrilled he is going to BYU. My husband and I are both alumni and we feel that it is one of the loveliest places to finish growing up. Introductions would be warmly welcomed! You know some of the most amazing people. xox

  10. Charity

    May 20, 2015

    We live in Alaska and I’m running into the same problems. I went to the counselor today to see if my daughter could take AP Biology online through BYU to make up her seminary credit, (no option of early morning here), and the counselor told me after talking to the curriculum principal she couldn’t take AP Biology but instead had to take normal biology, then chemistry and then she could take AP biology because apparently they “don’t allow AP Biology before normal Biology.” Additionally, I am struggling to put my 7th grader in challenging classes for next year, and the school district refuses to recognize high school level courses through BYU or any other online program because she’s “not in high school.” Uggh. I’m extremely frustrated that the education system does not recognize or help our student and children who are seeking increased knowledge instead of just skating by.

  11. Michelle Loosli

    May 20, 2015

    Abbie my bright 7th grader took the dreaded computer tech class this last semester. I too felt like it was a waste of time and way too easy! But her final grade, 85%! After reading this, we will keep at this. We will keep plugging along.

  12. Stephanie

    May 22, 2015

    What more can be done? My son’s online financial lit and computer lit grades are the only thing keeping him, a three-sport athlete, from a 4.0. He is going to summer school for fitness for life. It is SO frustrating. He also does early morning seminary and many other extra-curriculars with nothing to show for it on his transcript but the dreaded 3.98!

  13. Margaret

    May 26, 2015

    Hi Michelle,
    The situation you describe sounds super frustrating and doesn’t make sense. Is there something the USB knows that they are keeping to themselves? It’s hard to imagine they’d allow this to happen at this day and age without some justification. I wonder what that is.

  14. Jenn

    June 4, 2015

    Thank you for putting a voice to this problem. I have long complained about this exact issue, and many parents don’t seem to notice or care. Hopefully you can get people to start taking notice.

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