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Skip Senior Year and Go Straight to College?

Fabian Abebo and Aren Owens are friends, freshmen who shared the same lunch table at North Central High School. But one thing they don’t share is the same opinion of Gov. Mitch Daniels’ plan that will allow some students to skip senior year and go straight to college.

Abebo would like to be one of them.

“I’ll get a better chance to go to college,” she said. “It will help me pay for it.”

But Owens says it’s not for him.

“I want to stay for my senior year and graduate with my class,” he said. “You can’t take back your senior year of high school. That’s your best year.”

When the Indiana legislature passed the budget at the end of April, it also launched Daniels’ plan, which allows high school students who complete their core requirements by the end of their junior year to skip senior year and go straight to college.

Money the state would have spent on senior year will become scholarship money: $6,000 to $8,000 for most students, depending on their school district.

It’s an idea that divides educators. Some think senior year is too often ill-spent and not so necessary. But others think the answer is to strengthen, not abandon, senior year.

“Just because the 12th grade may not be fully utilized to its potential by many students doesn’t necessarily mean it should be done away with,” said Phillip Lovell of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington, D.C.-based education reform group. “It means it should be reconfigured to be more relevant.”

Daniels said he came up with the idea after years of asking seniors he met across the state what they were up to and too often being told “not much.”

“I kept bumping into seniors who said, ‘Well, I’m done,’” he said. “They’d laugh and tell me they were having a good time. We are spending thousands of dollars on students who are eligible to move on.”

Senior year has long troubled educators and policymakers, well aware that tests required to graduate often are passed by junior year. The National Commission on the High School Senior Year found in 2001 that senior year was “a lost opportunity: a year where we have significant drift and disconnection.”

Solutions over the past decade have trended toward mixing college and high school courses through dual-enrollment programs or early-college high schools, where students can earn an associate’s degree and a diploma.

But Daniels’ preferred strategy—shortening high school altogether—also is catching on.

Idaho just launched a program where 21 districts will give early-graduation scholarships. A similar bill is being eyed in Kentucky.

This fall, backed by the National Center on Education and the Economy and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, eight states will introduce a program that lets students finish high school in two years after passing several tests and enroll directly in community college. Indiana is not one of the eight states involved.

In Indiana, next year’s juniors can access the scholarships in Daniels’ plan, but the details of how to do so are still in the works.

State Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, who authored the original bill to create the program, estimated that 300 students will go to college early the first year and perhaps 1,500 over the first three years.

But it could grow faster.

In 2001, Texas began a scholarship program that in some ways mirrors Indiana’s. Over a decade, it grew from about 4,100 early college scholarships the first year to more than 7,000 by 2010, when it fell victim to budget cuts.

To graduate from high school early, Indiana students must complete the same requirements as those who attend all four years.

But whether they are ready for college is another issue.

Nationally, just a quarter of students who graduate from high school and take the ACT are prepared for college-level course work. More than one-third of all students must take at least one remedial course in college. At community colleges, the figure is 60 percent. Many students stuck in remedial classes never get to their real course work.

Indiana’s college-completion rates fall right along national averages, ranking 23rd in a 2007 study. Slightly more than half of students at public four-year schools graduated in six years, and only 29 percent did so in four years.

The Indiana Commission on Higher Education is working toward having the state in the top 10 by 2015.

But will shifting students into college help meet that goal?

Pike High School Principal Troy Inman isn’t at all sure that leaving high school early will be good for students.

High school, he said, already lets kids take college classes through dual enrollment and offers high-level courses such as Advanced Placement classes that lets students earn college credit if they score well on a national test.

“I don’t think it’s a great idea,” he said. “We want them here taking AP classes and dual enrollment. We don’t want them taking blow-off classes.”

Kim Dickerson, head of guidance at North Central High School in Washington Township, envisions the program serving a narrow niche of high achievers or career-focused students with specific plans for their future. Most kids, she said, won’t be ready for college early.

 “Those students are rare,” she said. “When we look at the big picture, we spend a lot of time figuring out how to get kids into college, but a lot of kids don’t stay because they are not prepared.”

But some students already are itching to move ahead more quickly. Zara Anwarzai, a sophomore at North Central High School, plans to leave Indianapolis at the end of this school year and go straight to Simon Rock College in Massachusetts, which has a special program for students who want to start college early.

Anwarzai plans to forgo a high school diploma and pursue her goals of a law degree and a career in politics and diplomacy. Her family has long been involved in diplomacy, including her uncle Mohammad Anwar Anwarzai, the head of the United Nations Department at the Afghan Foreign Ministry and a former Afghan ambassador to Pakistan. Zara Anwarzai’s dream is to be U.S. secretary of state someday.

Anwarzai likes the early college program, even if it doesn’t go far enough to help her graduate early.

“I feel like the last two years of the high school academic curriculum are repetitive,” she said. “Right now it’s really hard to graduate early. I think a lot of people would do it if it were easier to do.”

Going to Simon Rock, she said, will let her earn her law degree by age 22, which she hopes will give her a running start toward her goals.

Her father, Riaz Anwarzai, said he was surprised she wanted to go to college early but supports the idea. He thinks Indiana’s new program is a good one.

“If they are smart enough and they can make it, why not?” he said.

But senior Anna Skochdopole said her final year at North Central offered opportunities she wouldn’t have wanted to miss.

She enjoyed her senior seasons in track and cross country. A weight-training elective helped her improve athletically, and she said she probably never would have taken art classes such as drawing and ceramics if she had focused on getting out of high school as fast as possible.

The new scholarship program, she said, might cause kids to miss out.

“The kids who would be motivated to get it all done in three years are probably the same kids who would take those kinds of classes,” she said. “But you just wouldn’t have time to do it all.”

For all his enthusiasm for his own idea, Daniels admits he’s not sure he would have left high school early if he were given the chance. But Kruse, who authored the original bill, is certain that leaving early wouldn’t have been right for him.

“I would never give up my senior year for this option,” he said. “I don’t think most kids will want to give it up. You look forward to being on the starting five or the drum major or receiving the choir awards. Whatever you are involved in, senior year is the ultimate year.”

Scott Elliott is a reporter for the Indianapolis Star and wrote this story with help from The Hechinger Report’s Sarah Butrymowicz. The story also appeared in the Star on June 7, 2011.

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