School Program Puts Focus On Graduation, Not Grades

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 9, 2008

Bria Heard, 14, a rising sophomore in Prince William County, had a couple of options after she failed world history last year. She could retake the course over six weeks in summer school or during the next school year and try to improve her grade.

Or, she could choose a fairly novel program available in the school system. She could do the course work using a new computer-based program that would not improve her grade, but would allow her to earn the credits needed to stay on track to graduate in four years. To her, the benefits outweighed the cost of not getting a better grade. The program is free and can be completed in days.

"You can go at your own pace and it's quicker," Bria said recently while stumbling through questions on Russian history. "I didn't know if I should do it, but then I realized it was easier than taking the full course."

Faced with increased state and federal pressure to improve graduation rates, and constrained by tight budgets, Prince William educators are using the unconventional strategy to help stragglers get their diplomas in four years without having to spend money to hire more teachers. School officials said the program appeals to students who fare better working independently, and helps students who would otherwise not graduate or attend college.

Some educators question the courses' effectiveness and whether they lower expectations.

"This is a stopgap measure at helping these students get a high school diploma. It's certainly not going to help them go onto post-secondary education, which really should be our goal," said Mel Riddile, former principal at Alexandria's T.C. Williams High School and now associate director at the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Reston.

Prince William appears to be the only school system in the Washington region using the program, which does not increase a student's grade-point average. Charles Pyle, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, said state officials had not heard of the program and planned to discuss it with Prince William administrators. D.C. schools spokeswoman Mafara Hobson said she had not heard of the program, adding: "I don't think this is a turn we'll take."

Fairfax County schools uses the same computer program, called NovaNET, created by Pearson Education, but only to supplement courses at its alternative high schools, not for students seeking to recover lost credit, said Teresa Zutter, the school system's director of alternative programs. "If the students [in Prince William] are simply trying to get through -- and some of our students are not as highly motivated as we might want them to be -- and it helps them get matriculated through, then that's a good thing," Zutter said. "It's something I'd want to explore."

Still, the program is gaining popularity in Prince William. Enrollment is at 100 students, up from 25 in its first run last summer. School officials, students and parents say that the courses are financially appealing and ultimately help students -- those who are hard to motivate or at risk for dropping out -- graduate on time.

"It doesn't help their GPA at all. We just give them a pass, a standard credit," said Jim McGovern, vice principal of Prince William's summer school. "We're trying to keep kids from getting a GED -- not that that's totally crippling, but it's better for them to have a diploma in their hand. A lot of the seniors I talked to, after they passed their course, they went across the street and signed up" at Northern Virginia Community College.

The program is student-driven. Students take a diagnostic exam and are then taken through a series of lessons based on material they have not mastered. They are tested after each tutorial. They work at their own pace -- some complete the course work in a few days. Students can repeat the tests until they pass and are allowed to use the Internet for help. Teachers roam the classroom to offer assistance.

Nikki Glover, a summer school math teacher, said she is "okay" with students seeking out multiple online sources because the Internet has helped some students learn better in nontraditional classroom settings.

"A lot of these students are extremely capable," Glover said. "I ask them, 'Why did you have problems with this in the school year?' and they say, 'I didn't like my teacher.' Here, they rely on themselves."

School officials said the system saves about $13,000 by using the computer program for 100 students, as opposed to hiring instructors and holding traditional classes. The program is free, but students could be charged tuition in coming years, officials said.

"This is for students who have difficulties -- I like to use the word challenges -- and who are not looking to change their grade or GPA," said Renée Lacy, the school system's supervisor of alternative and summer programs. "Let's say you'll have an F on the transcript for English 9. If you pass the summer course, it will say on the other side of the transcript that the student passed the course."

Laqawnda Fisher, whose son failed a math course and is enrolled in the program, said she was immediately drawn to the course when it was suggested by a guidance counselor. "I said, 'Is it cheaper than the $425 [for a regular summer school course]?' And he said, 'It's absolutely free.' I said, 'Where do I sign up?' " Fisher recalled.

Fisher said it is okay that her son will not be able to raise his average. "It doesn't change his GPA, however there's a way to get community service or something to beef up his transcript," she said. "And it's something he can explain when he does college interviews, like 'I couldn't afford summer school.' "

At summer school, meanwhile, Bria was struggling on a world history quiz, the same 10-question, multiple-choice quiz she had taken five times.

She looked at one question and was stumped: "What was the purpose of the Communist international organization?" So, she went to and typed "communist international organization" into the Web site's search engine. She found a few links but none that helped her. She went on to the next question, about what best describes philosopher Karl Marx's theory of communism. She became stuck again and turned to teacher Don Mercy for help.

"Isn't Marx the one that didn't believe in government?" Bria said.

"Look up Marx in your book," Mercy said.

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