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State’s high school graduation requirements will change — but when?

February 4, 2017 GMT

Connecticut’s high school seniors can expect to face tougher graduation requirements, but it’s not clear how soon the standards will kick in.

In 2013, the state increased the number of credits required for graduation from 20 to 25, but each year since the implementation date has been postponed. As of now the requirement would apply to students entering the ninth grade in fall 2018, but a state committee has already revived a bill that would appoint a task force to review the rules once again.

That leaves local school officials in some suspense.

“We’re moving forward and monitoring graduation requirements, but we’re not holding our breath,” said Danbury Deputy Superintendent Bill Glass.

The toughened requirements would require each student to complete a fourth year of math, a third year of science and two years of a world language, as well as completing a senior “capstone” project. The rules also would increase the arts requirement from one credit of fine or practical arts to one credit of fine arts and two credits of career and technical arts.

An earlier task force has proposed a series of revisions to this plan that could still be taken up during this legislative session, said Abbe Smith, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

That task force recommended eliminating the humanities credit, dropping one of the two world language credits and adding a STEM credit (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). The recommendation would also remove the project requirement, though districts would have to make it optional for juniors and seniors.

The report was created after the task force listened to presentations and testimony from school officials and students from across the state, including some from Danbury.

“As a result of this discussion, the Task Force has concluded that the 2021 graduation requirements are in urgent need of a major overhaul in order to align well with the objective of every student meeting the (State Board of Education) standards,” the report states.

Glass said Danbury supports the new requirements, but he said officials are wary about the timeline for implementation, partly because Danbury High School, with about 3,000 students, is the biggest in the state.

“Conceptually, we’re very much in favor of the graduation requirements,” he said. “The devil’s in the detail.”

School officials already encourage students to take at least two years of a world language, but if the state makes two years mandatory, the district would have to hire another two or three teachers to offer the needed classes. Glass said that ordinarily wouldn’t be a problem, but there aren’t that many world language teachers in the state and school districts would be competing against each other to hire them.

“We like the idea, but the issue is finding teachers in a limited pool,” Glass said.

Another challenge will be finding enough mentors to work with Danbury’s 700 seniors on the capstone projects, which require the supervision of faculty advisers. Danbury High has about 200 faculty members, so each teacher would have several students to mentor, Glass said.

Newtown has started working toward the new requirements by gradually adding them based on the students’ interests. Next year’s seniors will have to complete 23 credits to graduate, including a world language course, said Assistant Superintendent Jean Evans Davila.

She said many students are already taking more than the required courses, including extra math classes, and she doesn’t expect the transition to the tougher state requirements to be a challenge.

”We want these kids to leave with the best opportunities, regardless of what an enhancement act says,” she said.

Thomas McMorran, superintendent of Redding, Easton and Region 9 schools, said he doesn’t expect the new requirements to have much effect at Joel Barlow High School, where many students are already taking the required courses.

He said many Barlow students would probably exceed the 25-credit minimum because they tend to take full courses to get into college, compared to other schools where students might prefer to graduate early or enter the workforce.

“Most students in [affluent] schools in general are putting together credit experience to prepare for colleges,” he said.

Shepaug Valley School is the only one in the Danbury area that adopted the tougher requirements even though they are not yet mandatory. Teresa DeBrito, Region 12’s curriculum director, said they ensure that students are well-rounded and prepared for college or careers.

Shepaug previously required 28 credits to graduate, but lowered the figure to come in line with the state guidelines. Few changes were needed in the mix of required classes.

“They were pretty much in line with what we were doing,” DeBrito said.

Increased variety in the required courses — especially the career and technical options — has allowed the school to reach more students and improve graduation rates to 100 percent. It also allows students to take more high-level courses to prepare for college and presents career options for students who would rather pursue a vocational degree or an apprenticeship after high school.

“If you don’t offer these opportunities, you’re potentially holding students back and preventing them from being a well-rounded student,” DeBrito said.

McMorran said the new requirements are the state’s way of ensuring every student has the same opportunity for learning.

“We shouldn’t only have a comprehensive college prep program in well-to-do towns,” he said.

kkoerting@newstimes.com; 203-731-3345; @kkoerting