School lowers diploma standard

FORTVILLE — Mt. Vernon High School is lowering its requirements for a general diploma in the hopes of helping more students graduate.

The school had the highest minimum graduation requirement in the county, at 45 credits. Starting with the Class of 2016, students will need 42 to graduate.

That’s still higher than the state minimum of 40, and it’s in line with what the other county high schools require. Mt. Vernon High School principal Bernie Campbell said the change will help those five or six students a year who struggle meeting the high standard.

“I think initially it will make a significant difference to the lives of a few kids next year when they graduate on time with their class, rather than having to come back for a fifth year, go to summer school or drop out,” Campbell said.

The move had full support at a recent Mt. Vernon school board meeting, where Campbell and guidance counselors talked about students who struggle.

“It really hit home with us last year,” Campbell said. “A student withdrew himself from Mt. Vernon and attended Pendleton because Pendleton did not require for their general diploma as many credits as we did. So we lost a student because of that.”

Mt. Vernon already has the county’s second-highest graduation rate at 93.8 percent with the Class of 2014.

But Campbell said that while most students who can’t meet the 45-credit standard by graduation time go on to get their diplomas in the following months, there have been a few who got discouraged and dropped out.

High schools are given flexibility in the amount of credits needed to graduate with certain diplomas, so long as they meet the minimum standard of 40.

There are three types of diplomas that can be earned at each of the high schools, each with different difficulty levels that can open various doors of opportunity after graduation.

At Mt. Vernon, the general diploma had the same 45-credit requirement as a Core 40 diploma, the second-highest level. An academic honors diploma at the school requires 47 credits.

Most students graduate with a Core 40 or honors diploma. Campbell said 13 students (6 percent) last year earned a general diploma; about half couldn’t meet the 45 level and had to go to summer school to complete their work.

Algebra II was the most common pitfall in meeting the graduation requirement. Under the new standard, the course is no longer required. Science and social studies requirements also will be reduced.

Guidance counselor Lindsey Finn said one benefit is perhaps students will have more time to attend a technical course, rather than make up the math class they’ve been struggling to complete.

Guidance director Martha Sands said students who aren’t able to graduate with their class feel powerless.

“Where maybe they fell short before, now they can go out, get a job, join the military or go to a two-year college and learn a skill or trade,” Sands said. “So it’s giving them more flexibility when they’re looking at their future. Their future is brighter with a diploma than without a diploma.”

The minimum graduation requirements for Hancock County’s other high schools were already lower than Mt. Vernon’s. Eastern Hancock has a 42-credit minimum requirement, while Greenfield-Central and New Palestine high schools require 40, the state minimum.

“There have been discussions to look at raising that but not in the immediate future,” said Greenfield-Central High School Principal Steve Bryant.

Most students graduate with a Core 40 or academic honors diploma. Each high school requires 47 credits for an honors diploma, while a Core 40 diploma requires 42 to 47.

Campbell said there might be a perception among parents that the school is watering down its academics by lowering its high standard. But he said he hopes people keep in mind the standard is still higher than the state minimum and counselors are striving to help students reach their goals.

“People might not see the explanation, but they might see the fact that we lowered our credits,” he said. “But I think within this building, I know that making such a proposal is the right thing to do for the students that are here and for the parents of those students.”