Area school districts offer more options as they strive to meet new requirements

12/08/2013 12:00 AM

12/10/2013 9:57 AM

Some Tarrant County school districts are moving ahead with plans to offer more options to high school students, despite not having all the requirements in place at the state level.

When the Legislature approved House Bill 5 and Gov. Rick Perry signed it into law in June, it brought a mandate to offer multiple pathways to graduation, including five endorsements for specialized diplomas, that allow students to learn skills in fields such as health sciences and engineering, business and fine arts. Most educators say the changes are positive for students but challenging to implement.

“The biggest challenge in trying to meet the requirements as an organization is to make sure that kids are ready to sign up for classes,” said Elizabeth Clark, associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction in the Birdville school district.

Clark said Birdville educators will meet with eighth-graders and parents to talk about the new options and to get students to develop personal graduation plans.

The law requires that students entering the ninth grade declare an endorsement choice in writing. Students can change the endorsement they are pursuing at any time. The five endorsements are science, technology, engineering and math (STEM); business and industry; public services; arts and humanities; and a multidisciplinary option.

The Northwest school district just completed registration for eighth-graders to apply for spots next year in academies in the various endorsements, said Tony Neely, the district’s director of career and technical education. Northwest academies include STEM, medical professions, media arts and technology, restaurant management/culinary arts and cosmetology. The district also offers many other traditional career and technical education courses, or CTE, that fulfill endorsements.

“This will allow students to individualize their learning plans and get away from a cookie-cutter education, although some students stay with the traditional model,” Neely said.

Keller expanding options

In Keller schools, officials are expanding options and gearing up for more demand for CTE courses.

“As diversity within Keller ISD is changing, so does the diversity of college, career and post-secondary plans of student,” said Casey Stone, director of career and technical education.

Ten years ago, a greater part of Keller students were planning to attend four-year universities. Now many of them are opting for two-year colleges first or looking for viable careers, Stone said.

A few of Keller’s strongest CTE programs are engineering and audiovisual technology, but the district is also adding courses through business partnerships to offer more, like aviation technology and distribution logistics, Stone said.

CTE enrollment in the district has also been hampered in the last few years by the state’s requirement that students have four years of math and science instead of three and by the reduction in the high school schedule from eight periods to seven, a move to save money made during 2011 reductions due to state budget cuts for public education.

Stone said administrators are working to educate students and parents in coming months about the new graduation pathways. The district will hold town-hall meetings, send emails, post videos and hold question-and-answer sessions.

“We want them to know what are the new graduation requirements, what are the endorsements and help them find which are the most interesting to them,” he said.

Unfinished requirements

Hundreds of area instructional leaders attended a recent workshop at the Region 11 Education Service Center to learn about the latest developments in the implementation of HB5.

Patricia Hardy, an educator from Weatherford and the District 11 representative to the State Board of Education, was the featured speaker.

Hardy said she had been a big proponent of the additional math and science classes in the previous “four-by-four requirement” but mandates for students to take certain advanced math and science courses were not her intent.

“I never expected every student to take physics,” Hardy said. “I expected every student to take science.”

The flexibility of the new graduation pathways will benefit all Texas students because they would have more freedom to explore diverse subjects. “If you put people in classes not related to their interests, they’re going to lose focus,” she said.

The openness of the endorsements also gives school districts room to adapt them to the strengths of their communities while managing their financial resources, she said.

“A lot of the responsibility falls on the local school districts,” Hardy said. “It would be wrong for the state to say, ‘You have to offer this.’”

Hardy said that with some of the new curriculum, the state board had its first reading in November and won’t have its second until January, which is too late for many districts to change their course guides for 2014-15.

She added that state education officials are still working on a requirement to offer personal financial literacy courses to students.

Fort Worth ahead of game

The Fort Worth district was in good shape meeting the endorsement requirements with the implementation of the Gold Seal Programs of Choice and Schools of Choice, said Cathleen Richardson, the district’s executive director of teaching and learning.

“We’ve already begun getting courses aligned in sequence in all areas,” Richardson said.

Fort Worth already has a high number of students involved in obtaining certificates and licenses that can help them go into careers or college programs, she said.

For example, Dunbar High offers aviation technology, engineering and urban development, and business technology as part of the Gold Seal Programs of Choice.

“With all the endorsements, we’re waiting to hear the final word from the state and at the same time getting all the other staff updated on current issues without overloading them,” Richardson said.

Clark, the associate superintendent in Birdville, said that one of the biggest problems with implementing HB5 is making local policy changes in graduation plans without complete information.

“School boards don’t want ambiguity,” Clark said.

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