Monday, September 8, 2003

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Of all the ways attempted to free up space in Florida’s crowded classrooms, this one could be a dream come true for high schoolers in a hurry: a diploma without a senior year.

Supporters of a law granting a high school diploma in just three years said it will help reduce crowding in Florida’s schools. Critics fear it will deprive early graduates of extracurricular activities and senior year milestones.

The state’s top education official already is warning that the new law essentially enabling students to forgo their senior year is not for everyone and shouldn’t be abused.

“It was meant for a small group, a band of students, who were not only mature enough but smart enough to graduate,” Education Commissioner Jim Horne said. “It’s not an attempt under class size pressure to do away with the 12th grade.”

The fast-track graduation law was among several measures passed this spring in the wake of a voter-approved amendment requiring the state to take immediate action to start reducing class sizes. The amendment sets caps for every grade, including no more than 25 students per high school class by 2010.

Under the option, students can graduate with six fewer credits, as long as they double up on English classes to earn four credits and study a foreign language for two years. They are allowed to skip several elective credits, including physical education, art and life management courses.

No other state has tried a similar program, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Texas started offering scholarships this year to students who graduate early, but only those who complete an advanced high school program.

Educators across Florida say the program encourages too many students to miss out on the life and learning experiences gained during high school’s senior year.

“Kids are having a hard enough time as it is in college,” said Okeechobee County School District Assistant Superintendent Lee Dixon. “You’re giving up the fourth year of high school math, and high school science. You don’t want to leave it up to kids to shortchange themselves.”

Other educators say students who have six credits less than their peers when they graduate won’t be as competitive in university admissions. And they will likely be too far from their 18th birthdays to immediately enlist in the military.

“This is a strategy for class size reduction, not for quality education,” said Fay Clark, an executive director with the Broward County School District.

Still, some schools aren’t dissuading students from taking advantage of the early diploma. Instead, counselors are working with teens and their parents to explain the potential pitfalls.

“We’re giving them the cold, hard facts,” said Palm Beach County schools spokesman Nat Harrington. “If that’s what they want to do, we just want them to go in with their eyes open.”

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