Members of the Newton County Board of Education listened to information about the new state graduation rule as presented by NCSS Director of High School Curriculum Kathy Reese at Tuesday night's board meeting.
The new rule establishes a set number of credits needed for graduation and eliminates the tiered diploma system of technical prep, college prep and with distinction.
"We didn't just say 'well the state decided to pass this new graduation rule - we'll work on it next year,'" Reese said. "We've been working on it for months."
Reese and employees in her department have been organizing professional development opportunities for counselors and graduation coaches, sending letters home to parents of eighth grade students, coordinating parent information nights and reviewing courses offered in the high schools.
Changes will affect students entering the ninth grade for the 2008-2009 school year. Students who are currently sophomores, juniors and seniors will not be affected by the new rules.
All students now must earn 23 credits to graduate. Advanced courses such as in the Quest and Advanced Placement programs will continue to be offered.
Math, science and special education are the areas most affected by the new requirements.
First, science units have been increased from three to graduate to four.
"The science teachers in Newton County are recommending that because of the new standards and the new graduation requirements," Reese said, "they want to offer biology instead of physical science in the ninth grade."
Math courses also have changed to Math I, II and III and an additional math course. Support courses will also be offered as co-requisites.
"If the teacher thinks the eighth-grade student is in danger of failing the ninth grade math course, then they will recommend that student take a support math class."
Regular education students do not have to take the math support courses, which count as an elective, but special education students must take them in order to earn a regular education diploma.
Board member Cathy Dobbs said she was concerned taking a support course would prevent a student on a traditional schedule from taking other courses necessary toward obtaining a diploma.
Board Chair Almond Turner said the board should consider adopting a county-wide block high school schedule. Currently, Eastside High is the only high school in the county to operate under a rotating block schedule.
"Having the rules affect incoming freshman, it gives us a little time to tweak things," Turner said.
Another change includes allowing three units of JROTC to count as the required health/physical education unit.
"If you've ever seen them work out, they probably get more exercise than in a P.E. class," Reese said.
Perhaps the biggest changes to the graduation rule affect students in special education. Reese said teachers and counselors have been meeting with parents already to explain the new requirements.
"They are telling them the special education diploma will no longer be recommended for any child entering the ninth grade next year," Reese said.
Although students can still obtain a special education diploma, most will be pushed to work toward a regular high school diploma.
"There's nothing simple about special education these days," said Linda Hayden, associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction.
The new requirements also expand the age special education students have to graduate from 21 to 22.
"I think it was to give them more time," Reese said, "because they're going to need it to earn the 23 credits needed for graduation."
Board members expressed concern for students with severe cognitive disabilities trying to earn a regular education diploma.
The state mandates only 2 percent of the students in the district may earn a diploma using the Georgia Alternative Assessment. Hayden said teachers would have to reassess those students to insure the GAA is only administered to students with profound disabilities if the 2 percent cap was exceeded.
"We really wish more people were here to hear what we have to go through and how the state ties our hands," Turner said, "and, so they can be a voice to our legislators."
To ensure all parents of eighth grade students entering ninth grade next year understand the requirements, an informational meeting has been scheduled for 6:30 p.m. April 15 at all of the high schools. Parents should attend the meeting at the school in their attendance zone.
Board members encourage all parents of children in eighth grade and below to attend the meetings to see the direction high school education is going in Georgia.
Reese said the most frequently asked questions are about the reasons why the rules are changing.
She said the technical prep degree is often looked at as a less difficult degree to earn. Also, science and math requirements are becoming more rigorous in order to compete with other industrialized nations in a global economy. Finally, she said because employees have been forced to differentiate between special education students who could be integrated into a regular education program and those who could not, many students have benefited.
For more information about initiatives in Newton County to smoothly transition into the new graduation rules, visit http://www.newtoncountyschools.org or call (770) 787-1330.