When Jennifer Asmuth enters ninth grade at Prince William County's Woodbridge High School next fall, she will have to take at least three courses each in science, math and a foreign language before graduation in order to receive a college preparatory diploma.
That's a far cry from the current county high school requirement of one course each in science and math, with no foreign language--and, as far as her mother, Lynne Asmuth, is concerned, it's about time.
"The community and the administration have been moving toward tougher graduation requirements perhaps more slowly than the other communities," said Asmuth last week. "Our population is much more college orientated now."
It's all part of a set of "get tough" policies initiated by the Prince William School Board during a meeting last week in which the board approved not only the new graduation requirements but 12 other tougher education requirements as well. All of it was done, board members said, in an effort to counter charges by parents that Prince William graduates are unprepared for the rigors of higher education.
"Our history has been that of a rural school system," said School Board member Jayne Speck. "We are just responding to the needs of a more suburban school population. We are responding to the needs of students heading for college."
The seven-member board met no opposition when it approved the requirements last week, but not everyone is equally enthusiastic about the action. Budget-watching citizens are concerned because it is estimated the new policies will cost the county an additional $142,000 next year. And many teachers are angry because they say the board did not consult them and acted too quickly.
"Teachers are absolutely dumbfounded that the administration would come up with such policies without consulting, even listening, to their concerns," said Joy Arnold, staff director of the Prince William Education Association, which represents the county's 2,000 teachers. "The whole tenor of this program is that teachers are at fault, get after the teachers. We will have a calculated reaction in a few days after everyone calms down, but I will tell you now that teachers are very, very upset with this."
The policies were recommended by a task force of administrators and parents created four months ago by the School Board after results of a county-wide survey indicated parents and students felt there was a need for improvements on the secondary school level.
Specifically, the board action increases the number of credits required for graduation from 18 to 20 starting with next year's ninth graders. The board also created a special college preparatory diploma for students who complete a rigorous 22-credit course of study that features a strong emphasis on math, science and foreign languages. A credit is awarded for each year of study in a subject.
Other new get-tough policies include a rule that high school students must complete one written composition a week in English class, and that teachers get training to help them more closely follow the county's curriculum.
In addition, under the new policies:
* Students will be required to remain in school the entire academic day, unless they hold jobs;
* College level courses will be provided for interested students;
* Scholastic Apptitude Test (SAT) classes will be offered after school;
* A new comprehensive sequence of math courses will be created;
* Teachers will be required to be recertified if they change teaching assignments.
These policies follow on the heels of a previous board decision to frequently evaluate teacher performances.
According to school officials, the new policies already have been implemented successfully in school systems across the country. Some even call the policies "trendy." But they emphasize that Prince William, the last jurisdiction in Northern Virginia to increase graduation requirements for its students, is not trying to catch up with its suburban neighbors.
"The survey showed us the way to go," said School Superintendent Richard W. Johnson. "It raised some problems and we have addressed them. It was an internal study. We aren't comparing ourselves with our neighbors."
The county's national test scores are solidly average: the median Scholastic Apptitude Test is 429 in the verbal portion and 471 in the math, compared to a national median of 424 in the verbal and 466 in the math. Though those scores are below those of neighboring Fairfax County, they are above those of Alexandria.
"We are a good system," said Johnson. "But we are always looking for improvement. This is something we think will improve our students, and we think parents agree."
Even though the new policies and graduation requirements received little comment when they were introduced and approved last week, school officials say they realize the matter may not be closed.
"There is still some comment expected from the community and teachers as well," said school spokeswoman Kristy Larson. "These are steps we have needed to take, but we realize everyone may not have the same opinion."