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Class of 2013 is the first allowed to graduate with fewer credits

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About 1,475 seniors graduated from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools with fewer than 28 credits in 2013, an option that wasn’t available in previous years, according to numbers CMS released to the Observer.

But CMS officials say those aren’t necessarily students who wouldn’t have earned diplomas under the old requirements. Instead, they say, it’s part of a shift toward providing more paths to prepare students for careers and college, including internships, work and community college classes taken during high school.

“My personal hope is we’re creating a better senior year for our kids,” said Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark.

Recently released 2013 graduation rates showed CMS and the state hitting record highs, with CMS at 81 percent and North Carolina at 82.5. For CMS, that’s up from 76 percent in 2012.

In CMS, the class of 2013 was the first that needed only 24 credits to graduate, instead of 28. The state minimum was 21 for 2013 grads, and is rising to 22, but most districts add to the state minimum. For instance, Guilford, Iredell, Gaston and Lincoln counties still require 28 credits; Cabarrus requires 27; and Wake requires 26.

Initially, CMS officials could not say how the change in required credits affected the rates. At the Observer’s request, they tallied the number of credits earned by this year’s 7,762 graduates.

According to the CMS report, 81 percent of them – or about 66 percent of the 9,584 students who started as ninth-graders four years earlier – earned 28 credits or more. But CMS officials say that doesn’t mean the district’s rate would have dropped if the old standard had remained in place.

Students in the class of 2013 knew since they were freshmen that they’d need 24 credits, which would allow strong students such options as graduating early or taking college courses that might not yield CMS credits, said Clark and Jimmy Chancey, CMS’ director of career/technical education.

Students who pass all courses can earn 24 credits in three years.

According to the CMS tally, 5 percent of the 2013 grads, or about 388 students, graduated early. That would allow them to enter the workforce or move directly into college.

Students who stay for four years can take a partial course load to get out earlier in the day, providing extra time for jobs or other activities.

Exploring options

The CMS change was approved in 2008, as the state was revising its graduation requirements to create what’s called the “ Future Ready Core,” a roster of math, science, English and social studies classes designed to prepare students for work or college.

CMS students must meet those requirements, plus take one additional science or social studies class. But the school board at the time decided to pare back the number of elective, or optional, classes needed to graduate.

The change originated with an exploration of ways to lower the dropout rate, but board members at the time emphasized the options for students to spend less time piling up traditional courses and more time preparing for a career or college.

In CMS, students who take a full course load and pass all classes have 32 credits at the end of four years. Some top that by earning high school credits in middle school or taking additional classes online or through Central Piedmont Community College.

In 2013, three-quarters of the graduates, or about 61 percent of the ninth-graders who started four years earlier, earned at least 32 credits, according to the CMS tally.

In CMS and across the state, the emphasis has shifted from pushing all students to take a full slate of traditional high school classes to offering options, such as tuition-free college classes, internships and apprenticeships, that prepare them for life after high school.

Michael Floyd, a 2013 Hopewell High graduate, says he earned 27 credits and a 3.2 grade-point average. His course load included an algebra/trigonometry class and a class on surveying technology taken at CPCC.

Floyd, who’s now a CPCC student, said he was insecure about leaving home and high school. “I wanted to get a feel for college,” he says. He’s convinced the CPCC classes he took prepared him better than more high school electives would have.

What impact?

The number of CMS students enrolled in CPCC courses is growing rapidly, and so is the number of classes they’re taking, Chancey says. He cited that as a sign that graduates are becoming better prepared, regardless of the number of credits earned.

That jibes with what college admission officials said when CMS was considering the change. Those interviewed by the Observer said they were less concerned with the number of credits the district required than with how well students’ courses prepare them for the field they’re seeking to enter.

Exactly how the emerging options affected students’ credit totals is less clear. In many cases, taking CPCC classes and doing internships still generate CMS credits, so those options wouldn’t necessarily create a lower total.

At CMS’ Performance Learning Center, internships and college classes provide an incentive for students who have fallen behind, said Principal Tracey Pickard.

The alternative school, which blends online learning and personal instruction, is designed for students who aren’t thriving in traditional high schools. Students who have failed classes may be discouraged by just trying to pile up more traditional credits, she says.

For those students, 24 credits are more attainable than 28, and being able to help them meet that requirement by taking a college class or doing an internship “has been a huge motivator,” Pickard says.

“I think it’s good for kids,” she says.

Meshing systems

Some 2013 graduates said the lower total helped them when they transferred from other districts where classes were structured differently, leaving them with fewer credits than they’d have gotten under the CMS eight-classes-a-year structure.

For instance, Guilford County has some schools set up so students take only six classes a year. Those schools require only 22 credits to graduate, compared with 28 for those set up like CMS.

Anthony Battle, a 17-year-old Independence High graduate, said he transferred in as a junior from a district where a full four-year load brought 24 credits. When he got to CMS, he said, he took regular and online classes to earn 25 credits for graduation. He’s now studying marketing at CPCC.

While CMS leaders hope to continue boosting the graduation rate, Superintendent Heath Morrison has been consistent in his message: A diploma is essential, but only a first step.

As he and the board craft a long-range strategic plan, it’s expected to include even more ways to help teens get the diploma, such as a new virtual high school, and more emphasis on partnerships with colleges and employers who can guide high school students toward skills they need.

Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms
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