The senior year of high school, a time when students sometimes seem to be putting the focus on social rather than academic pursuits, is a periodic target of cost-cutting school boards and state Legislatures.
One Texas school district is evaluating the 12th grade for a different purpose — not to reduce overall spending, but to fund prekindergarten.
The Dallas Independent School District, the state’s second-largest, aims to develop an alternative three-year high school diploma plan, likely to start in the 2014-2015 school year. With the help of a bill passed during the recently concluded legislative session, the district will create a pilot program that will funnel the money saved when students graduate early under that plan into expanding pre-kindergarten offerings.
“It’s a way to start thinking about the system differently,” said Mike Morath, the Dallas ISD trustee who has advanced the concept. “Do we view education as schools and buildings and first grade and second grade and third grade? Or do we view education as a way to enrich the lives of young people, and do we start taking these institutional blinders off and thinking about it more creatively?”
If students in the voluntary program graduate early, under legislation carried by two Dallas Democrats, Rep. Eric Johnson  and Sen. Royce West  that grants the district an exception to current state policy, it can re-direct the per-pupil state funding that would have paid for their senior year into pre-K classes.
The bill authorizes the state to credit Dallas ISD for students who graduate early under the three-year diploma plan, Morath said, so that the district will still receive state funding for those students when they finish after their 11th grade year for their entire 12th grade year. That would allow the district to fund full day pre-kindergarten for two children for every high school student that moves on in three years, he said. What Morath called a "slightly reduced need" for staff at the high school level could result in additional savings to the district.
Advocates of early childhood learning say the long-term benefits of pre-kindergarten include making students less likely to drop-out, repeat grades or need remedial course work. In his State of the Union address in January, President Obama set as a priority making “high-quality preschool available to every single child in America.”
The state now pays for half-day preschool programs for children who are learning English or are from homeless, low-income, foster or military families. In 2011, the Legislature, facing a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall, cut more than $200 million in grant money that helped districts extend their pre-K programs to a full day. Since then, many districts have searched for ways to keep full-day pre-K without state aid, including charging tuition and, in San Antonio’s case, a city sales tax.
Because the Dallas program, which still must be approved by the state education commissioner, is in its initial stages, Ann Smisko, the Dallas school district’s chief academic officer, said the district could not predict what demand might be or provide numbers on how many students typically graduate early each year. Smisko said educators would work with middle school students to determine whether they would enter the new diploma plan. Parents must give their approval for students to participate in the program, and the district is required to form partnerships with state community colleges and four-year universities to place students who graduate early in some form of post-secondary education.
The district is also in the midst of developing curriculum requirements for the three-year diploma, which Smisko said would be geared to “college-ready” standards.
Morath said he thought an alternative diploma plan would appeal to both high-performing students as well as those who were eager to enter vocational training.
The district will know within five years whether the program is a success, he said. At that point, he said, the Legislature could decide whether to expand it to other school districts in the state.
But he emphasized the proposal was not meant as a push to get rid of high school students’ senior year, which for many, he said, has value for social and academic development.
“I don’t think anyone thinks the 12th grade is going away,” he said.
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