Texas high schools have little time to make some big changes in course offerings

BY KATE ALEXANDER | Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013, 5:34 PM

With the pathways to high school graduation multiplying next year, Central Texas school districts big and small are mulling how to provide students all the course options lawmakers envisioned.

Their decisions could affect which teachers are needed as well as which schools students might want to attend. And the districts will need to act quickly after getting the state’s final rules in late January to put what they need in place for the next school year.

Legislators last spring scrapped the prescriptive 4×4 graduation plan — four years each of math, science, English and social studies — used by almost all high school students and replaced it with five different specialized courses of study.

The aim was to give students, particularly those not bound for college, the flexibility to choose classes more relevant to their future career plans. The “endorsements” include STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — arts and humanities, business and industry, public service and multidisciplinary.

“We’ve gone from a system that was 4×4, that was very tight … to now a system that has lots of choices. That’s good for kids, it’s good for the system, it’s just a challenge,” said Ed Vara, deputy executive director the regional education service center that works with Central Texas school districts.

The first challenge is timing. The State Board of Education gave initial approval to the rules for the new graduation plans just over a week ago but will not take a final vote until late January. That is typically when students are making their course selections, which drive what kinds of teachers are needed. So contract decisions will be on hold.

In the Austin school district, the biggest obstacle will be the staffing and physical capacity at the high schools to provide the courses for all the endorsements at all of the schools, said Edmund Oropez, Austin’s associate superintendent of high schools.

“We don’t believe we would have the financial resources to be able to do something like that,” Oropez said.

Oropez expects that each high school will offer a few of the endorsements and provisions will be made for a student who wants to pursue an endorsement offered at another school, such as taking online courses or partnering with Austin Community College.

The decision about which endorsements will be offered at each school will probably not have to be made for about a year. The core requirements for next year’s ninth-graders — the first class affected by the legislation — haven’t changed much so they still won’t have much wiggle room in their schedules to take advantage of the flexibility.

The endorsement selection will probably be a little more limited at Granger High School in Williamson County. Granger’s single high school serves 125 students with 17 teachers, so providing courses for all five of the endorsements would be unreasonable.

But Granger Superintendent Randy Willis said his district will be able to offer several different endorsements, particularly with the help of online courses. Already, 30 percent of the students take some kind of online course.

Some influential business and trade groups were key advocates in the Capitol for getting the changes made to the graduation requirements because they said they needed better trained employees coming out of high school. But the lack of equipment for practical courses, such as an industrial kitchen or automotive lab, will keep schools from offering the trade-training courses, Willis said.

“Unless business steps up and helps schools reinvest in the type of equipment we need, we’ll be between a rock and a hard place in trying to offer the programs,” Willis said.

To offer the full slate of endorsement options, Willis said smaller school districts will also have to team up with each other.

A career training partnership involving Granger and the neighboring Taylor, Thorndale and Bartlett school districts might provide a model for that cooperation.

Working with Texas State Technical College, the four districts pooled their dollars to offer career training programs in welding, automotive technology and culinary arts that will lead students to an industry certification as well as a high school diploma.

To get that same training after high school would cost the student about $12,000 over two years, Willis said.

Earning the industry certification takes 600 hours of lecture and lab time, which comes out to two-and-a-half hours a day over two years. It was hard to fit those hours into the 4×4 structure, Willis said.

Without the changes to the graduation requirements, those students would not have been able to get a high school diploma that would qualify them for college while also securing an industry certification.

“They’re no longer second-class citizens,” Willis said. “They are on the same par whether they are going to college or career. They feel equal.”

High School Endorsements
Incoming ninth-graders next year will have to choose from one of the five new “endorsements,” which are specialized pathways to high school graduation.

• STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math): Science, including environmental science; technology, including computer science; engineering and advanced math

• Business and Industry: Database management, information technology, communications, accounting, finance, marketing, graphic design, architecture, construction, welding, logistics, automotive technology, agricultural science, HVAC

• Public Services: Health sciences and occupations, education and training, law enforcement, culinary arts and hospitality

• Arts and Humanities: Political science, world languages, cultural studies, English literature, history, fine arts

• Multidisciplinary Studies: Student can select courses from the curriculum of each endorsement area and earn credits in a variety of advanced courses from multiple content areas sufficient to complete the distinguished level of achievement.

Source: Texas Education Agency

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