Harford schools may toughen graduation requirements


School officials in Harford County are moving to toughen high school graduation requirements by imposing extra courses and lengthy class projects - hurdles that in other states have sometimes spawned protests by parents whose children failed under the new standards.

Students would be required to pick a career field in the 10th grade and then take four courses relating to that field. Under the plan presented this month, students would also take a senior-year math course, which is not currently required. The changes would bump total graduation requirements from 21 credits to 26.

Officials are also floating the idea of mandatory senior projects, inspired by school districts in other states where students have built homemade guitars, tool sheds, wakeboards and other items.

School administrators know that such initiatives can quickly become unpopular when the first failing grades go out and students are prevented from graduating. Parents in Washington state reportedly wore armbands and students in Idaho staged walkouts to protest the projects. Similar protests in South Carolina and Rhode Island led school officials in those places to scale back requirements, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Such resistance partly explains why Harford school officials are spending the next month seeking public comment on their plan, which they call high school reform. The new standards could be imposed as soon as the 2006-2007 school year after a final vote by the school board.

"You have to anticipate there are some people who are going to object to being asked to do more," said David A. Volrath, Harford's chief of secondary education.

But the alternative is the current situation in which some Harford seniors leave high school unprepared for college or a career, he said. His staff's proposal follows two years of research in which teams of teachers visited school districts as far away as Portland, Ore., where schools have used career-related courses to raise high-school standards.

School districts in Montgomery, Anne Arundel and Frederick counties have already implemented career-oriented programs.

"Our high schools used to be like shopping malls, where you had all these choices that led to nothing," said Nancy S. Grasmick, Maryland's superintendent of schools. "Our high schools are becoming, with career clusters and assessments, extremely focused."

Students in Harford would choose from four career fields: science and technology, health and human services, business and finance, or arts and media. They would take at least four career-related courses, such as accounting or principles of business management. Some of the courses are already offered as electives.

Students would be allowed to switch "career clusters." During their senior year, they would spend several hours a day in a work environment, such as a dentist's office or court, depending on their career field.

Cedarcrest High School in King County, Wash., was one of the first schools to require senior projects, which now include four-page term papers and the creation of a product. Recently, one student wrote piano music and performed the piece during class. For a project on water safety, another student designed a wakeboard that has since been trademarked and sold by a major wakeboard company, said Anthony L. Smith, assistant superintendent of the Riverview school district.

While some students fail the project each year - 17 out of 173 students in the Class of 2003 failed the project - most students have been able to make it up in time to graduate, Smith said.

"The vast majority [of students] are very pleased that they did this because it's improved their lot in life," Smith said.

The career courses would be designed to beef up senior year, widely considered a bye year among many students. Currently, the only requirement tied to senior year is English. Under the proposal, seniors would be required to take English, math and at least one career-related course, and spend several hours at an out-of-class internship.

"They [many seniors] sort of coast through the year and do nothing," said Kathryn L. Smith, a Fallston High senior and the student representative on the Harford school board. "They have a period where they just aide for a teacher, they make copies, things like that. You play on the computer for a little bit. When they go to college it's more difficult to get back into the routine of working hard."

But some students might not be prepared to select a career field by their sophomore year and might feel pigeonholed if forced to do so, said Deb Merlock, whose oldest son is an Edgewood High sophomore.

"I couldn't imagine him sticking to a career cluster," Merlock said. "We want their high school experience to be very broad to give them the background they need to move on to college."

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