Prince George's County art teacher Nancy DePlatchett tells the story of a student who never had taken an art class until his senior year, discovered he had great talent and eventually opted for art school.
DePlatchett envisions similar success stories as a result of the newly approved high school graduation requirements in Maryland, which include a mandate that all students take at least one year of fine arts.
But for high school senior Jim Maneckshaw, the tougher graduation standards do not evoke such pleasant visions.
"A lot less people will be graduating," predicted the 16-year-old Friendly High School student. He said students are already facing academic pressure in school, and that the new requirements may mean more failing grades that will drive youngsters out of school.
The two views reflect the diversity of reaction in local school systems last week when the Maryland Board of Education raised the minimum graduation standards for high school students. The changes, slated to go into effect starting with next year's ninth-graders, added to the graduation requirements a third year of mathematics and a year each of fine arts and "practical arts," including home economics, industrial arts and computer studies.
The board created a "certificate of merit" award to be given at graduation to students who perform well in advanced courses. In addition, the board voted to require that seniors be enrolled in at least four courses. This ends a long-standing practice among some students of loading most requirements into the first three years of high school and taking only one or two courses in the senior year.
Although the state board will take a final vote on the standards in June, members have indicated that the policy will stand and have instructed their staff to begin preparing for the changes.
In the meantime, the changes are being hashed over by administrators, teachers and students, who see in the new requirements a variety of blessings and potential headaches.
DePlatchett, who teaches at Northwestern High School, said art teachers are delighted.
"It's kind of put some spring in our step that people finally realize art is an integral part of a child's education," she said.
She maintains that art education helps students in other classes, by teaching creativity and principles of math, for example. "They need the arts and humanities to be a well-rounded person," DePlatchett said.
However, sudents who were interviewed were less enthusiastic about the changes.
"It's definitely terrible," said Maneckshaw, who plans to go to college this fall and eventually enter medical school. "They're getting too strict. They're putting more pressure on the younger people, and they're just getting more rebellious. As it is now, a lot of freshmen just come to school . . .and cause trouble."
Kathi Jones, a ninth-grader at Walt Whitman High in Montgomery County, said she "disagrees strongly" with the rule that prohibits students from taking only one or two courses for their senior year. That practice has enabled many seniors to take on afternoon jobs.
"I don't think it's fair," Jones said. "Seniors could come to school and then go to work. I don't think that's such a bad idea. I think it's admirable."
Approval of the requirement that all students take a year of practical arts was unexpected but welcomed by some school officials.
"There are some lifetime skills kids gain from taking those courses," said Merrill Fisher, principal of Damascus High School in Montgomery County.
Fisher and other Montgomery school officials were generally happy with the new requirements, pointing out that the county had already moved from two to three years of required math and had added a year of required fine arts. Prince George's also required the third year of math, but state officials said no districts had adopted the practical arts requirement.
In Prince George's County, many principals and elected officials greeted the changes with trepidation.
"The in thing is to be all for all the requirements, but we've got staffing problems in Prince George's County," said Bowie High Principal John Hagan. He said that during the past few years he has cut back teaching positions in art and home economics, adding the slots to the basic academic areas. Because of the new requirements, he said, he may have to take teachers from the academic areas to staff the art and practical art courses.
"Something has to give," he said. One possibility, adopted in Montgomery, is carving out another class period in the school day, moving from six to seven periods and allowing students to take more courses.
In Prince George's, where schools have operated under restrictive budgets since the passage of a property tax ceiling in 1978, officials have seen the newly mandated courses as more strain on resources.
"Maybe Prince George's is unique because of the funding," said Superintendent John A. Murphy. "I want to place priority on the basic skills, with the limited funding we have available."