Education chief talks about changing diploma options

Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- State Superintendent of Schools John White speaks at a community forum Monday at South Louisiana Community College in Lafayette.
Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- State Superintendent of Schools John White speaks at a community forum Monday at South Louisiana Community College in Lafayette.

As the state moves to streamline high school diploma options to strengthen a career-training diploma track, it shouldn’t remove college as an option.

That was the message South Louisiana Community College Chancellor Natalie Harder delivered to state Superintendent of Education John White during a Monday forum.

“No matter the diploma you earn, you have to be college-ready,” Harder said, adding that the notion college “only means a four-year degree” is flawed.

“Everybody’s got to go to college,” Harder said.

White held the first of several forums on the potential changes at SLCC on Monday with educators comprising the majority of the nearly 100 people in the audience.

By October, White said, the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will consider proposed changes to eliminate the state’s current three-diploma system.

Instead, one diploma would be issued with two pathways — “Core Four,” which prepares students to meet admissions requirements to a four-year university, and “Career,” in which students graduate with industry-based certification to enter the workforce or continue at a two-year college.

The Core Four and Career tracks already exist with a “basic” diploma as a third option.

White said the proposed change focuses on strengthening the state’s career training track through greater collaboration between school districts, technical colleges and local industry to design “course packages” based on regional workforce needs.

The intention, he said, is to prepare students to graduate with the skills and credentials they’ll need to land “high-wage, high-growth” jobs.

School districts would have the flexibility to create the course packages with their local partners based on their community’s needs, he added.

The end goal is to better prepare high school students for their future in the workforce, regardless of whether they choose a four-year university path or career-training path to get there.

“Nineteen percent of our kids right now get a four-year degree, which means 81 percent of our kids are not getting any degree,” White said.

Fewer students are taking advantage of the career diploma option.

Statewide, a total of 2,400 are in the career diploma track with an estimated 171 career diploma graduates this year. Of the 2,400 career diploma students, about two-thirds are pursuing credentials in basic computer software programs and customer service — not the type of training that leads to high-wage jobs, White said.

Students set on the career diploma track make that choice as early as the eighth or ninth grade, which is too soon, said Tracy Beard, principal of Washington Career Center in St. Landry Parish.

The new option should allow greater flexibility for students to move between tracks, so the student does not “feel that the choice locks them in permanently.”

As part of the proposed change, students would not begin career-focused courses until their junior year, allowing more time for them to make a decision on their diploma pathway, White said.

“Kids should not make a life-altering choice when they’re 12 years old,” White told those attending the forum.

Later this summer, state officials plan to release a “blueprint” of feedback from forums like the one held Monday.

Any changes approved by BESE would not take effect until the 2016-17 school year to allow districts time to create their programs.

However, White said, school districts may volunteer to “jump-start” changes sooner.

A webinar for interested districts is set for June 20.

Lafayette Parish Schools Assistant Superintendent Sandra Billeaudeau said after the forum that the district plans to volunteer because of its existing collaborative relationship with South Louisiana Community College.

The district and SLCC operate the Early College Academy, a high school program that allows students to earn an associate’s degree while in high school.

The academy program could serve as a model for other districts, Harder told White during the discussion.

She noted that the curricula for course packages already exist at regional technical colleges across the state and asked White to consider moving up the proposed 2016-17 start date.

“I worry about all those students we may lose in the middle,” Harder said.

But manpower and capacity could be issues for regional technical colleges if there’s an influx of career diploma students, said Kirk Soileau, career and technical education supervisor for Vermilion Parish.

Upcoming forums on the proposed changes are scheduled as follows:

wednesday: 3 p.m. at Fletcher Technical Community College in Schriever.

Thursday: 2:30 p.m. at SOWELA Technical Community College in Lake Charles.

Friday: 10 a.m. at Central Louisiana Technical Community College in Alexandria.

June 20: 9 a.m. at Baton Rouge Community College in Baton Rouge.

June 20: 5 p.m. at Bossier Parish Community College in Bossier.

June 21: 10 a.m. at Louisiana Delta Community College in Monroe.

June 24: 11 a.m. at Northshore Technical Community College in Mandeville.

June 24: 2 p.m. at Delgado Community College in New Orleans.