Could early graduation in Kentucky lead to more equitable outcomes for students?

For thousands of students across America, high school follows the same path of four years, full of classes, courses, and conversations, all to prepare for what we call “the real world.” For some students, however, this traditional path is not what they need or want. Differing circumstances create an environment where the traditional high school system can become inconvenient or even detrimental. To combat this problem, school districts across the nation are seeking to accessibly offer the choice of early graduation.

To better comprehend this initiative, we first need to understand what early graduation is. There is a difference between graduating early and early graduation. To graduate early, a student must obtain the required credits (as set by their schools) for graduation. For instance, a student within Fayette County may graduate early if they accumulate the total number of credits designated necessary. These graduation requirements vary by county, and by state (for example, in some Ohio schools, participation in two school sports for one season counts towards the Health/PE credit).

Fayette County offers several courses over the summer through e-school. Using this resource, a student can obtain a Health credit, a Humanities credit, an English credit, etc., making it possible to complete high school within three years. All it takes to graduate early is for a student to obtain these credits and get paperwork from the board of education confirming their completion.

Alternatively, early graduation is a more formal process. According to the Kentucky Board of Education, early graduation implies going through a program in which you enter high school intending to graduate within less time than the traditional four years. This involves meeting benchmarks on testing throughout high school and receiving a diploma and certificate for completing the program. Upon graduation, these students are formally recognized through that diploma.

This program, though requiring more effort and commitment, provides many resources that help students shape their future to their needs. Laura, a junior from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, expressed this sentiment. “I had the resources available to graduate early, and I didn’t really want to spend another year knowing I could move on.” She further explained how the time she gained from leaving school early opened up many opportunities for her to take time and fully decide what she wanted to do after high school.

Aside from preference, there are measurable benefits to graduating early. The National Association for College Admissions Counseling cautions about the effects of “senioritis” (a general apathy and lack of motivation towards school-related activity attributed to high school seniors) that can cause a student’s overall performance to dip, even for those who excelled throughout the previous years. This apathy spreads further than just the individual to all they interact with, creating a bad learning environment across grade levels.

Yet no matter what environment we create, there are some students in circumstances that call for early graduation. High school students all across the nation find themselves in situations where they need to help support their families. The extra time spent at school in classes they don’t need to take becomes a hindrance.

Across our state and nation, unheard students face obstacles every day that affect how they learn. Making matters worse, the pressures from their fellow peers and even some teachers can discourage them further. This fosters a hostile attitude and general apathy towards school. And for those who can manage all they have to do, the prospect of a free year with no direct penalty may be just what they need to reach their full potential. Early graduation is not the solution to this problem, but is a way of helping students who will leave the school system before something more permanent is put in place.

Though especially helpful for those in grim circumstances, that extra year can be beneficial for all. Many students who opt to graduate early use the extra year to work, earning money without having to take time off for school and worry about the workload. “I could work and maybe even dodge the crippling debt of student loans,” said Grace, a graduating junior from Paul Laurance Dunbar. Many share her sentiment, not wanting to add thousands of dollars of student debt to their future monthly budgeting plans.

And for those who have no intention of attending college or other such institutions, this extra year gives them an opportunity to gain experience that will help set them apart in today’s job market. In many fields, employers are more inclined to hire workers with prior work experience, and in a system where experience is needed to get the jobs that count as experience, this is an invaluable opportunity.

Along the same lines, some students elect to study in less formal institutions, saving money whilst also getting general credits so they can begin college with both an educational and financial foundation. In Kentucky, students may attend classes at BCTC, gaining credits by studying there for two years before transferring to other schools. For those students, this is a great way to ease into the environment of higher education whilst also saving a lot of money.

Similarly, Columbus State, in Ohio, automatically transfers college credits from high schools of the students who elect to go there. “I was able to graduate in half the time since so many of my credits transferred,” said Jane, an Ohio State University alumni. For her, the decision to attend Columbus State proved to be the only way she could attend college. Later she transferred to Ohio State University and pursued a degree in biology.

To support students in the same situation as Jane, the Kentucky Board of Education has made it possible for students who complete the early graduation program to apply and receive scholarships for post-secondary schools. The opportunity to attend college, or some training and education institute, opens up many doors within the job market for these students. In a country where the cycle of poverty seems to continue from generation to generation, the opportunity to break this cycle is game changing.

These programs help not only the student, but also the state. Early graduation helps reduce state spending and allows for more money to return back into the education system in areas that need more attention. This includes investing more money in updated books, current technology, new lab equipment, etc.

Investing back into the education system results in better-equipped students. The first step to accomplishing this is to inform students that such a path is an option. “It’s really easy… you could just walk in and ask your counselor for a packet,” Laura noted about this process at her school. Yet ease does not quell the concerns of some students and parents.

A common concern about early graduation has to do with maturity levels. College comes along with new and different emotional and mental challenges, along with new influences and certain freedoms. For many parents, their young child being exposed to these stresses at ages as young as seventeen only spells disaster, especially seeing how some full-grown adults cannot themselves handle it. Social problems also become a concern. Though the child may be in the same class as other college students and operating at the same intellectual level, differences in ages and experience hinder their ability to interact and relate.

And even then, not all students are on the same intellectual level. Leaving the high school system too early can have a negative impact on the educational capabilities of the students. To obtain all the required credits in a short amount of time, students often have fewer credits in advanced classes and earn fewer credits in science and math courses (not being popular as electives).

The lack of exposure to difficult courses makes the transition from high school level work to college level work more drastic and harder to deal with, only adding to the stress of a new environment. It’s comparable to jumping from high school basketball to the NBA. Even college level AP courses do not reflect the expectations of professors and are not a true reflection of a college class (students have two semesters compared to only one, students potentially meet five days a week compared to around two, etc.).

This is not to say that early graduation is detrimental, but to show that it is not a solution to everything. The option can be very beneficial for students in various circumstances. Those who do not intend to go to college have the option of pursuing apprenticeship in whatever they do, gaining experience in many blue-collar jobs where experience is more valuable than education.

Kentucky schools continue to make this option easily accessible for their students. “Schools must create an equitable communication plan so that ALL students (including home hospital) in the school know of the opportunity to graduate early,” states the Kentucky Department of Education.

Early graduation is not a be-all-end-all solution to the problems faced by the unheard students of our schools, but it is a step to help reduce their struggles. Discussion always precedes action in any situation and seeing this topic being discussed is a good omen. Yet to fix and improve a system involving thousands of people statewide, change must occur. As the demographic composition of our school systems changes, the system itself needs to change right with it. Talk of development needs to become actions for development. And whether that be through direct action on a statewide scale, or one word to change an individual life, let our focus not stray from those most important words: “It’s about kids.”

Nyasha Musoni is a junior at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. Her piece here originally appeared on the Student Voice Forum blog under the title “Early Graduation: Help or Hindrance?”

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