Virginia Offers Various High School Degree Programs Tailored to Students' Ambitions

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 18, 2009

Fifteen-year-old Simon Lhuillier wants to become a pediatrician when he grows up and buy a big house near a lake. Nila Fasihi, 17, thinks she might one day open a hair salon in Afghanistan when the war is over.

To prepare for the future, Lhuillier is signing up for honors physics and Advanced Placement English classes at Fairfax High School next year and stockpiling credits for an advanced diploma. Fasihi will take anatomy and English 12 at Fairfax High and continue refining her haircutting and skin care skills in a career academy at Chantilly High. When she graduates next spring from Fairfax High, she will earn a standard diploma and a state license in cosmetology.

The District and many states, including Maryland, offer one main high school diploma. Additional diplomas are often available for special education students.

Virginia offers a growing menu. The advanced diploma requires more math, science, social studies and foreign language credits. Beginning in 2010, students who prefer to learn by doing will be able to earn one of two technical education diplomas.

As Virginia's degrees become more nuanced, traditional distinctions between students learning trades and those bound for four-year colleges are breaking down. Educators and lawmakers increasingly agree that all students should graduate with higher math and literacy skills so everyone has a shot at a higher education and a good job. So, many states are increasing minimum graduation requirements.

A generation ago, Lhuillier and Fasihi would have been unlikely to cross paths in an academic classroom. Yet the teenagers took the same advanced algebra class this year and have struggled through similar chemistry labs.

Virginia officials are trying to increase the number of rigorous academic courses that all students take. Its proliferation of degrees seeks to address a riddle of public schooling: How do you engage large numbers of students with wildly different aspirations and abilities? How do you help the math whizzes, the late bloomers and the too-cool-for-school teenagers so everyone gets the most from school and has a chance at success?

"To treat all students the same makes no sense," Virginia Education Secretary Thomas R. Morris said. "Students learn at different rates and at different levels of achievement."

The advanced diploma is the state's most rigorous and defines the route to a four-year college. About half the Virginia students who completed high school last spring earned one.

Lhuillier is pursuing an ambitious course load and degree because he hopes to get into Virginia Tech or one of the state's competitive universities. Football and physical education are his first loves, but he is also a curious student who tries hard. Some classes, such as math, come easily; others don't. Honors chemistry was his toughest class this year.

Lhuillier was born in Singapore, and his family moved around when he was younger, including stops in Canada, the Bahamas and Florida. His early ambitions were to follow in the footsteps of his father, a famous pastry chef. But he was dismayed to learn that only the top chefs make more than $12 an hour. After some research on, he set his sights on becoming a pediatrician. He likes children, he said, and "the income interested me."

So he is taking a sports medicine class next year, pre-calculus and a third year of Spanish, and hoping to get his grades up for college applications. "I'm going to give it my all," Lhuillier said.

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