Pilot program could change traditional high school model

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 13, 2010

CORINTH — Six Mississippi schools districts have been invited to participate in a pilot program designed to give students options other than the traditional four-year track to a diploma.

The schools are Corinth, Tupelo, Jackson, Madison County, Gulfport and Clarksdale.

Corinth schools Superintendent Lee Childress said the Mississippi Department of Education is enthusiastic about the program and is offering assurances that it will work to remove barriers to its implementation, such as finding funding and facilitating agreements that would be necessary with the community colleges.

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“What they are proposing is modeled after what many countries are doing all across the world,” Childress told his board members this week. “Many countries have changed the way they are providing a high school education, but we’re still providing a high school education the way you and I were educated.”

He said the Corinth district has a 77 percent graduation rate and 13 percent dropout rate.

“We know some children just aren’t going to go to school past 16 years of age, whether you or I like it or not,” said Childress.

Visiting the Vicksburg Warren School District Wednesday, state Superintendent of Education Dr. Tom Burnham said state officials are concerned about high schools across the state, and said fixing them is difficult because “the high school itself is the problem,” with the social and emotional problems experienced by some students lying at the heart of the state’s high drop-out rate.

Moving some into a career-technical program and accelerating those qualified for early college enrollment are possible solutions, he said.

Vicksburg Warren trustees, along with Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Duran Swinford, hope to address another aspect of the problems in traditional high schools with a program the board approved last month that will accelerate some over-age students by placing them in double-block academic classes limited to 12 students.

The program, dubbed Accelerated Program for Transition, will give participating students the option of graduating or getting a GED and continuing on to a two- or four-year college, or getting vocational training, Swinford said.

Officials from Hinds Community College, which partners with the VWSD in offering vocational education, are enthusiastic about the program, said VWSD trustee Joe Loviza, a former Hinds Community College dean and a coordinator on the VWSD Job Training Advisory Council involved with vocational education.

Swinford and several officials from Hinds are set to travel to Oregon on Nov. 30 to pursue a $300,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help with APT’s implementation costs, which will include teacher training and materials.

The pilot project adopted in Corinth and other Mississippi districts involves a consortium of 12 states — the New England states and several others, including Mississippi, Kentucky, New Mexico and Arizona, and the Gates Foundation has already approved $3.5 million to evaluate the model.

“I think it has a lot of potential,” said Corinth’s Childress. “It will open up opportunities for children that will drop out. The second thing it will do is it will bring more rigor into the high school and ultimately into the seventh- and eighth-grade, because we’re going to have to do a better job preparing these children to meet possibly an international benchmark.”

Childress said the system, based on the result of an exam taken at the end of the 10th grade, would give a student several options.

A student making a score showing the equivalent knowledge of four years of high school study could take that certificate or diploma — the terminology is yet to be decided — and enter a community college program.

Childress said the student could also go straight into the work force. The student could also do dual enrollment, taking some high school courses along with community college courses.

Students interested in attending a four-year college institution would take the upper division of the exam. The system could benefit advanced students who lack only a couple of required credits by the time they reach their senior year and are not being challenged, Childress said.

Apart from those options, a traditional four-year diploma would continue to be available.

Childress anticipates students would participate in the new system in large numbers.

Like Vicksburg’s APT, the pilot program adopted by the Corinth and other boards is planned to be implemented in the 2011-2012 school year.