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April 1, 2002
Vol. 59
No. 7

Must High School Last Four Years?

Rochester City School District allows students to set their own pace in high school, enabling some studentsto accelerate their learning and others to spend more time mastering the knowledge and skills theyneed the most.

On East High School Principal Ed Cavalier's desk sits a decorative wooden box, a gift from a formerstudent. Inside is a note from the student, thanking Mr. Cavalier for being “like a father to me” andallowing him the extra time he needed to complete his diploma requirements—specifically, two extra years.In terms of the traditional schedule for high school completion, this student would have been considered afailure for not graduating after his fourth year of high school. Instead, teachers gave him the time he neededto earn his diploma, and he is now in his final year at Georgia State University, where he is studying to be ateacher.
For academic or developmental reasons, some students require more time to demonstrate theirknowledge and competence, and others require less. To address this disparity, the Rochester City (NewYork) School District created Pathways to High School Success, which restructures the high schoolprogram to allow students to earn a diploma in three, four, or five years. The shift in thinking is simple. Weused to hold time constant and vary quality of learning; with Pathways, we hold quality of learning constantand vary time.

Formalizing the Informal

The idea that students may need more or fewer than four years to successfully complete high school is notnew. The previously mentioned East High School student, for example, demonstrates that the methodologybehind Pathways has been applied before, albeit on an informal basis and often with the accompanyingstigma of failure. Traditionally, more than 6 percent of Rochester's students have taken between four andone-half and six years to complete high school. With no formal five-year program in place, these studentshad to fail several times to receive the instruction they needed to graduate. At the other end of the spectrum,each year dozens of Rochester students complete their graduation requirements after only three years ofhigh school. These are primarily students who begin accelerated programs and earn high school creditsbefore 9th grade.
What makes Pathways different is that students and their parents can choose the three- andfive-year high school options in the first place. Students must ask themselves, What do I want to accomplish inhigh school and how long will it take me to accomplish it? Regardless of the Pathways option they choose,all students must still complete the requirements forgraduation—earning the same number of credits, passing the same exams. Now, however, the time inwhich they are expected to do so is flexible.

Keeping Students in School

In 1996, Rochester's high school class of 2000 totaled 2,255 9th graders in seven traditional high schools.By the start of the 1999–2000 school year, only 1,247 remained in the district—a difference of 1,008students. Of those remaining, 446 were not performing at a level sufficient for graduation in June 2000.These were students for whom an additional year of high school could make a significant difference.
Of the 1,008 students who left the district, 143 dropped out of school and 109 entered a highschool equivalency certificate (GED) program. (Others moved out of the district or left for other reasons.)Most of these students left high school because they were not equipped to handle the requirements andexpectations of the traditional program. Had they been offered a nontraditional option, many of thesestudents—25 percent of the students we lost—could have been redirected and supported until they wereable to graduate.
Rochester is not alone. From 1990–1996, the number of students earning GED or othernontraditional diplomas doubled, from 6 percent to 12 percent of the total U.S. high school studentpopulation (National Education Goals Panel, 1997). In addition, 43 percent of college freshmen in U.S.universities with large minority-student populations had to take remedial courses in college, indicating thatfor many students, four years of high school is not enough (National Center for Education Statistics, 1997).

Creating Pathways to Success

Five-Year Paths

In Rochester, two options exist for completing high school in five years. Some students begin taking highschool courses in 8th grade and continue on an accelerated path through high school, graduating at the endof 12th grade. Other students begin taking high school courses in 9th grade and, in effect, graduate after13th grade. These students take courses for longer blocks of time each year, allowing them the time theyneed to focus and succeed. Most important, this second path provides a five-year course of study that is notpredicated on failure. Both paths allow students who have made sufficient academic progress in four yearsto take advantage of enrichment opportunities in their fifth year, including advanced courses, dual-creditclasses, and career-preparation programs such as internships or youth apprenticeships. For example,one-third of the graduates of the firefighter training program at East High School—graduates who are nowfull-fledged Rochester firefighters—used a fifth year of high school to complete the prerequisites for enteringthe city's Fire Academy.
The trimester schedule (fall/winter, spring, summer), similar to those used in colleges, offersstudents pursuing both paths the opportunity to take courses for credit during the summer. Rochester alsouses individualized scheduling, allowing students to spend longer blocks of time (double periods, forexample) in content areas in which their academic need is greatest. Counselors work with teachers andparents to determine students' areas of need and to structure their schedules accordingly.

Three-Year Path

The three-year option allows students to take four years of high school courses in three years, includingearning credit toward graduation during the summer. During the traditional 12th grade year, these studentscan then take advantage of college-level courses, apprenticeship programs, volunteer work, or otheralternative experiences in their field of study. Traditionally, students who completed high school in threeyears generally did so with only the minimum number of credits needed to graduate. (For students whoentered school in September 2001, New York State requires 22 credits, whereas Rochester's high schoolsrequire at least 25 credits.) By contrast, the three-year Pathways option allows students to further developtheir leadership skills, obtain additional credits toward college, and gain meaningful career experience.

One Student's Story

Trent is a 12th grader atEast High School who is planning to take an additional year to earn his diploma. Hecame to Rochester after two years at a high school in another district. His grades had ranged from As toFs, and he had earned only nine credits in those two years ofhigh school (a minimum of 13 is the norm).
After a difficult first year at East, Trent matured and began taking school seriously. This year, heis an honor roll student taking a full course load, including two math courses. Next year, his fifth in highschool, he will complete diploma requirements by taking one last social studies course. In addition, he willtake Advanced Placement or dual-credit courses to prepare for college, where he hopes to pursue a degreein computer engineering.
Trent fits the profile of a successful five-year path candidate: He has not always performed atgrade level and has had some academic difficulties, but he is a hard worker who will benefit from a fifthyear of instruction. He recognizes the problems he had in earlier years and is ready to commit tocompleting high school. Without the five-year option, Trent may well have dropped out of school.

Choosing the Right Path

Beginning in 7th grade, students meet with their counselors to discuss their options for high school. Thefollowing year, all 8th graders choose, with the input of their parents and counselors, the high school thatthey want to attend and the Pathways option that best fits their needs and goals.
Most students continue to choose the four-year option. Many others, however, benefit from theextra time allotted in the five-year option or the accelerated pace of the three-year option. All studentsbenefit from the opportunity to take charge of their own learning and to engage earlier in the process ofcollege and career planning. Of the 2,367 students entering 9th grade in Rochester during the 2001–02school year, 12 percent chose the three-year path, 80 percent chose the traditional four-year path, and 8percent chose the five-year path. Throughout high school, students may change options on the basis of theiracademic needs and progress, which are assessed annually.

Changing the Culture

Vital to the success of Pathways is ongoing communication, collaborative planning, and decision makingamong students, parents, and school counselors. When we unveiled Pathways last year, we held day andevening parent workshops, distributed information packets, and presented a video that we had created tohelp school staff members familiarize parents and students with the options available to them. Throughoutthis introductory phase, we emphasized the importance of parents' involvement in the Pathways selectionprocess.
Perhaps the greatest challenge the program faces is changing the culture to eliminate the stigmatraditionally attached to high school completion options that deviate from the typical four-year plan.Especially crucial is a change in the perception of the five-year path. District educators and communitymembers must perceive the five-year option as a legitimate education choice that supports studentsacademically and enables them to succeed, rather than as an indication of or punishment for students'failure. As the program expands and more participants choose the five-year path, our hope is that the stigmaassociated with its nontraditional status will dissipate. Over time, more students and parents will realize thevalue of tailoring high school to students instead of forcing students to conform to high school.
As educators, our goal is to inspire and enable students to complete high school with the skills thatthey need for success in college and careers. By expanding their high school options, we are affirming ourstudents' right to succeed rather than giving them permission to fail. Rochester's Pathways to High SchoolSuccess program is one new approach that provides effective education solutions for students sooner ratherthan later.

National Center for Education Statistics. (1997). The condition ofeducation 1997. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

National Education Goals Panel. (1997). National education goals report: Building anation of learners. Washington, DC: Author.

End Notes

1 The student's name has been changed.

Clifford B. Janey has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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