NHS will need to up the ante by 2014

NAUGATUCK — New and stringent state-imposed graduation standards for Connecticut’s public schools could have educational leaders scrambling when they take effect in 2014.

At Naugatuck High School, current students must earn at least 22 credits over four years to don a cap and gown and accept a diploma in June. Students of the Class of 2018 will need to have at least 25 credits under their belts under Public Act 10-111, which Gov. M. Jodi Rell signed into law in May.

The high school falls short of the new mandate’s requirements in four specific subject areas: math, world language, senior project, and physical education or life skills.

Naugatuck requires three years of math; the new rules demand four. NHS, like many high schools, has no world language requirement; it will soon impel students to learn a foreign tongue for two years. The high school falls two credits short of the 3.5 credits that will be required in physical education or life skills courses.

The state law also stipulates all seniors must complete a one-credit senior demonstration project — a novel concept for NHS administrators, who said they’ve never required seniors to complete a special project.

“We really have not done anything like this before,” said Associate Principal Janice Saam, who Principal Fran Serratore said has been spearheading an effort to develop what NHS is calling a “capstone” project. “We have the graduation requirements, but this is really going to be above and beyond that.”

Saam said the high school is piloting a course of about 20 students in the coming year to explore the senior capstone concept. Students will need to work with faculty and outside mentors to research a topic and develop a written report and multimedia presentation fulfilling written, technology and oral presentation components. Sometimes students will be required to meet with faculty members who will make sure they’re on track, but “there will be times where they’ll be able to sign out and actually use the time to do research, meet with a mentor, work on a project — whatever it is they need,” Saam said. “So it’s going to be kind of flexible.”

Saam added that the topics could be almost anything students could think of, provided the topics are approved by a Capstone Committee composed of NHS faculty members.

“For example, at other schools, kids were interested in being EMTs,” she said, “So they shadowed an EMT and came back and wrote about that. There were people who wanted to develop their own computer game. So they found a mentor who could help them through that and they made their own computer game. It’s really wide open as to what it is they can pursue, as long as they can demonstrate that new learning.”

Saam said the pilot class will help her and other administrators determine what will be needed to bring the program “to scale” in terms of staffing and resources.

“That’s what I’ll present to the superintendent and to the board,’ she said. “Come 2014, when the freshman class enters and becomes the first class that will have to complete it, what will we have to do each year to gear them up? What will we have? If we continue to run it as a class, I’m going to need personnel to teach that class. Some schools run it very differently. Some run it through an existing course; some spread it over several courses throughout the year. We’re going to have to see how that fits and what we have to offer and the resources we have here at the school.”

But regardless of how the high school administers the capstone program, it will still need to make up shortages in other critical areas like math and foreign languages.

Budgeting and staffing a concern
Both Saam and Serratore said the administrative details of the new law are still being filtered through the state Department of Education. The picture isn’t yet entirely clear, they said, but one thing seems certain: staffing will need to be increased or rearranged to accommodate new credit requirements by 2014.

“Our only obstacles are going to be, are we going to have enough staff to pull this off?” Saam said. “We’re down 16 teachers [after a 14 percent district-wide staff reduction] going into this school year. So now students are going to have to take another year of math, another year of science, more languages. Well, we’re going to need teachers to man some of those classes.”

Serratore said the state mandating more stringent — and potentially expensive — requirements in dire economic times quickly becomes a “tricky little slippery slope.”

Both he and Saam mentioned online learning and so-called “virtual classrooms” as ways to circumvent the need for increased manpower.

“Online learning is certainly going to be part of the future,” Serratore said. “High school is going to look a heck of a lot different in 2018 than it does now. Online learning is going to be a part of it; the projects and experience that kids do are going to be different than they are now.”

He acknowledged that one way add a credit in one subject without increasing the school’s budget is to cut staff from discretionary electives and arts programs to accommodate mandated increases in core subjects like math, physical education and world languages. But he stressed his feeling that elective programs are important “career pathways” that help students develop a skill set that can be valuable to them in their future careers as well as at institutions of higher learning.

“As far as the budget goes, my opinion on this stuff is yes, we should have more rigorous science and math and English, those core courses, but not at the expense of all these other courses,” he said, “because they also play a very big part in our kids’ education. These are areas that have interest to them. … If everything’s focused on these core areas, and that’s all there is, the opportunities for students to see some of these things and explore become very limited, and that’d be a sad state of affairs.”

“Research also supports the fact that students who are involved in the arts, both the performing arts and visual arts, perform better overall in school,” Saam added. “When people think of those areas as expendable, that students really don’t need these things, it’ss a false assumption. To say that anything we have here could go, that would be a sad day.”

More ‘difficult’ or more ‘appropriate?’
The new mandate will also require all high school students to pass standardized, statewide tests in five subjects: Algebra I, Geometry, Biology, American History and grade-ten English. The state education department, Saam said, would release model curriculums outlining the material teachers must impart to students in order for them to succeed on the tests.

State legislators contend standardized testing will help maintain uniform competency among graduates statewide in those subjects. This, they say, will ensure post-secondary instructors are dealing with incoming students of similar skill levels and familiarity with basic subjects.
Saam said the legislation aims to encourage a “K-16 model,” an educational paradigm under which most students go on to pursue post-secondary degrees.

“I think the argument comes back to, what is the value of a high school diploma, and what does it mean?” she said. “It shouldn’t mean just, ‘I was present. I was here for four years; I was breathing, and I had a pulse and sat in a chair and I can get a high-school diploma.’ I think what we’re looking at is that that high-school diploma is going to mean something to kids. … It’s raising the bar, and I think that’s a good thing.”

“Things have changed so much in the last 15 years as far as what’s out there, as far as job opportunities and skills required and so on,” Serratore added. “The days of going to Uniroyal and getting a position and staying there forever, they’re not there anymore. Kids coming out need to have a real strong skill set, and the competition for spots is tremendous.”

Serratore acknowledged it would be an uphill battle for administrators, who will need to find the resources to accommodate new rules in tough economic times, and for students, who will be asked to accomplish more than was asked of earlier generations to earn a high school diploma.

“For the schools it really is a challenge,” he said. “And the state and [the New England Association of Schools and Colleges] and different organizations are pushing schools to think outside the box to provide these 21st-century skills so the United States can be competitive and so on. It’s a tough road. … But [the new graduation requirements are] not just more difficult. They’re more appropriate.”