Standard changes challenge teachers

HANCOCK COUNTY — High school teachers across Hancock County are grappling with stringent new academic standards that will require most educators leading advanced classes to go back to college in order to keep teaching.

The new criteria will require those who teach courses for which students receive both college and high school credit to have at least 18 credit hours from master’s degree-level courses in the subject by fall 2017. In Hancock County, that could send about a dozen back to school.

The decision, handed down by the Higher Learning Commission, an independent organization that provides accreditation for colleges and universities in Indiana and 18 other states, has left administrators scrambling to identify staff members who need to return to college and wondering how those teachers will pay for the training.

The so-called dual-enrollment courses, generally offered to juniors and seniors, allow students to fulfill high school requirements while simultaneously earning credits that transfer to higher learning institutions. In Hancock County districts, for example, high schools have partnerships with state universities including Indiana University, Purdue University and Ivy Tech Community College.

Dave Pfaff, principal at Eastern Hancock High School, which offers dual-credit courses in agriculture, math, science, English and several foreign languages, said the requirements aren’t just unreasonable but unrealistic.

“We’re talking about teachers who not only aren’t making much money but who also have families and full-time jobs,” Pfaff said. “How are they going to figure out a way to pay for this, and how will they get it done so quickly?”

Of the six teachers at Eastern Hancock High School who teach dual-credit courses, five fall short of the new requirements, Pfaff said.

Though many of the dual-credit teachers have master’s degrees in education, those credentials aren’t applicable to the new standards.

Rob Stonerock, a dual-credit teacher at Eastern Hancock, said he feels blindsided by the requirement.

Now in his 19th year as an educator, Stonerock said he’s taken dozens of college credits through continuing education initiatives since becoming a teacher. Those programs, however, were incentivized by his school corporation, which reimbursed him for most of the costs, he said.

But Eastern Hancock administrators haven’t approved programs to reimburse teachers for the 18 required credit hours. The uncertainty has left Stonerock in limbo as the September 2017 deadline nears.

“We’re basically in a rudderless ship,” Stonerock said. “We know what we need to do; we just don’t know how to do it.”

Administrators from other school districts around the county also are feeling the pressure of the new requirements. Greenfield-Central High School has one teacher who meets requirements, one who will finish a graduate program to meet the standards by 2017 and three who must pursue further education to remain qualified.

Of the three teachers leading dual-credit courses at Mt. Vernon High School, none meets the new standards.

Bernie Campbell, principal at Mt. Vernon High School, said he’s not convinced the skills a teacher would gain from taking master’s level courses in a specific content area will translate into a more meaningful learning environment for students. While he would expect teachers to enhance their expertise in a specific field, he said, he’s not sure that advanced knowledge will translate into better lessons for students taking undergraduate-level courses.

“I’m not sold on the argument that it’s going to change what students get out of those classes,” Campbell said.

Rhonda Peterson, curriculum director for Southern Hancock School Corp., which offers nine dual-credit courses at New Palestine High School, was unsure how many teachers will retain qualifications, but many don’t currently meet the new standards.

Peterson predicts those teachers will be able to meet qualifications by the deadline, though she said she wishes districts were given a larger window of time to do so.

In recent years, Campbell said, he’s been working with teachers to map out a way to expand Mt. Vernon High School’s dual-credit offerings. But with the uncertainty of the new requirements looming, those plans are on hold indefinitely, he said.

Ultimately, he added, it could be the students interested in taking dual-credit courses who suffer most.

“For those top-notch students who are looking for a way to challenge themselves and get a jump on some college courses,” Campbell said, “this could be very detrimental.”

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Daniel Morgan is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. He can be reached at (317) 477-3228 or dmorgan@greenfieldreporter.com.