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So Many Dreams, So Many Diplomas
Virginia Offers Various 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 Careerbuilder.com, 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.

Fasihi got a late start in school. Her family fled Afghanistan in the late 1990s and moved from Pakistan to Iran and back, before going to Northern Virginia in 2001. She arrived in the middle of third grade, without speaking English and with little formal education.

She caught up over time but never developed a strong interest in academics. "Why do you want to learn about the past?" she wondered about her history class. And math? "Too many formulas."

Cosmetology is different. She loves doing hair, and she loves her class. One morning last month, Beyoncé played on the radio as Fasihi worked rows of curlers into the hair of a mannequin named Whitney that was mounted on the back of a salon chair. Two dozen girls around her practiced updos and fantasy makeup and gossiped about prom and graduation.

Fasihi works on her trimming and tinting skills at school and at home, practicing on her friends, cousins, sisters and mother.

She plans to work as a stylist after graduation and to enroll at Northern Virginia Community College, like her older brother, who is pursuing a degree in business and accounting.

Her flexible plans are typical, cosmetology teacher Wayne White said. "This is not your mother's vocational school. I have kids taking Advanced Placement tests. . . . We don't teach them that this is the only thing you are going to do," White said.

White estimated that more than 60 percent of his students go on to college. His class emphasizes versatile professional skills, such as résumé writing, as well as business skills.

Thirty years ago, a much more rigid educational tracking system decided students' fate in blue- or white-collar professions. Now things are more gray.

Educators are trying to increase the academic content and prestige of career and technical programs overall. Many fields, such as automotive technology, are highly computer-driven, and all workers benefit from the good communication and reasoning skills that strong academic courses provide, they say.

Career programs can also help students who are bored gain new interest in school by applying what they know.

"A lot of kids who think they are not college material go into career and technical education . . . and transition into college and are very successful in the workplace," said Kimberly Green, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium.

Virginia is creating a series of career academies in science- and technology-related fields and recognizing academy students everywhere who go beyond minimum academic requirements.

Right now, the minimum graduation requirements in Virginia are not enough to prepare students for college-level work in math. Students don't need advanced algebra to earn a standard diploma. They also don't need physics or a foreign language.

Many civil rights advocates are concerned when states have a range of academic expectations for high school graduates because more minority and poor students tend to be concentrated in the less rigorous categories.

In 2010, the baseline will increase. The state Board of Education voted last month to increase the rigor of math and science classes needed for a standard diploma. The career and technical education diplomas will also have tougher math and science requirements.

Fasihi chose to pursue a standard diploma mostly because she struggled through Spanish I and was not sure she could handle the required three credits of foreign language for an advanced diploma. By spring, she will have fulfilled most of the coursework for the tougher degree, including in math.

In her advanced algebra class this year, she brought her grade up to a B-plus from an F by staying after class and working hard. She still isn't so interested in math. But if she opens her salon in Afghanistan, she said, "I might need it."

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