It seems that every well-meaning change from state lawmakers brings more uncharted waters for students, teachers and administrators to navigate.
“We’ve gone through so much transition,” said Rebecca Braaten, who oversees high school curriculum for Polk County Public Schools. “Every year it’s something new.”
This week, in ceremonies at the Florida State Fairgrounds, Hillsborough public school students in the Class of 2013 are picking up what may be the last diplomas of their kind now that the Legislature has changed the state’s graduation requirements.
By revising the Career and Professional Education Act, or CAPE, lawmakers this spring created two tracks – one for students looking to jump right into work and another for those bound for college.
The bill actually rolls back previous graduation standards after lawmakers worried they were too tough and were causing dropouts. All students still will have to earn 24 credit hours and pass standardized tests in Algebra I and language arts.
But a “merit” diploma will also require at least one industry certification for a position such as pharmacy technician, truck mechanic or software developer. A “scholar” diploma requires some foreign language study, Algebra II, high school biology and history, and at least one college-level academic course.
Most school districts haven’t yet begun to figure out how to comply. The state Department of Education’s own slideshow on the CAPE Act admits its “implementation … is complicated” and “there are a lot of components to this law.”
“We don’t want to misinterpret the law,” said Rob Aguis, career and technical education director for Pasco County Schools. “We’ll do what we have to do in the best interest of our students and prepare them as we need to.”
Hillsborough County Public Schools spokesman Stephen Hegarty said that district also hasn’t yet addressed the new law’s requirements and is awaiting direction from the state.
“But we have to do it, so we’ll be ready,” he said.
“We’re nowhere near having that ready,” said Cheryl Etters, the Education Department’s press secretary, referring to what's known as a technical assistance letter. “We are working as quickly as we can, but the (law) is large and we’re not sure how one piece affects another.”
The new law (SB 1076) is 84 pages long and includes higher education initiatives, including undergraduate degree programs that cost less than $10,000. It takes effect July 1.
Administrators like Braaten worry that the new high school requirements are too much, too soon.
“Some students don’t know what they want to do; the bar hasn’t been set for them yet,” she said. “What if, say, their parents haven’t gone to college? How can they advise them?
“The pressure’s on us to make sure students know what their options are,” Braaten added. “… It’s tough.”
During the legislative session, some critics said the state was creating a kind of dual, blue collar/white collar diploma track. Pamela Burtnett, a lobbyist for the Florida Education Association, bristles at the suggestion.
“When you take your car in to the garage, that mechanic might refer to a technical manual that’s about 700 pages long,” said Burtnett, whose group represents teachers. “That’s not the kind of old blue collar job like standing on an assembly line.”
The latest graduation requirements aren’t a lowering of standards, she added, but a recognition that technology dictates the demands of the job market.
“It isn’t diminishing the rigor in coursework,” Burnett said. “It’s a different way of expressing skill in a technical world.”
Kathleen Oropeza, co-founder of FundEducationNow.org, an education advocacy group, also supports the diploma changes.
“It clearly recognizes not all children are cut from the same cloth,” she said. “What it does recognize is there are different ways to get to a career."
It also represents a lot of work for those who have to put policy into effect every year.
“We’re all on pins and needles, just waiting,” Braaten said.