Proposal would allow students to opt out of junior, senior years

HOLLIS – From an academic standpoint, letting some students graduate after only two years of high school could be ideal, said 17-year-old Mark Firmani, a senior at Hollis/Brookline High School.

Firmani said he might have even considered it, given the chance.

But from a social perspective, ending your high school career two years early could mean missing out on some of the best memories of your life, he said.

“I feel like if you left early, you’d be losing that social experience,” he said.

State education officials are looking to implement a board of exams that students would take after their sophomore year. Those who pass would be able to essentially opt out of their junior and senior years, graduate early and start taking community college courses, either at their school, off site or online.

It’s an innovative proposal, and one that has led to New Hampshire being included in the national discussion about ways to improve education by making some drastic changes.

The proposal was featured in an article in Time magazine earlier this month.

State Commissioner of Education Lyonel Tracy said the purpose of the program is to give students who are ready a chance to go beyond the high school curriculum and get a jump-start to their college education.

“This is an opportunity to offer them advanced education if they choose it,” he said.

It could also free up state resources that could be directed toward students who need more assistance, he said.

Students who passed the exam, which has yet to be developed, wouldn’t necessarily have to start taking college courses, Tracy said. But the results of the exam would let them know if they’re prepared, he said.

Students could take the exam as many times as needed to pass it, Tracy said.

Reaction among a group of seniors at Hollis/Brookline High School was mixed.

“I think it’s a good idea for a lot of kids,” said Lizzy Huberlie, 17.

But moving ahead too quickly has its drawbacks, she said. Some of her friends who skipped a grade early in their education regretted it later, she said.

Mike Lunderville, 17, said a lot of students that age still don’t know what they want to do, so it may not make sense to start taking college courses at that point.

Tracy said students who chose to start taking college courses could still take part in high school extracurricular activities. Some of the courses might even be available within the school, he said.

The proposal was borne out of a report called “Tough Choices or Tough Times,” which argued that American education needs a drastic overhaul to remain competitive in the global economy.

One of the recommendations of the report was to allow students who are ready to be able to graduate early and go to college. Tracy’s proposal would limit students to taking courses offered by local community colleges.

The New Commission on Skills of the American Workforce issued the report, which makes other recommendations, such as offering universal pre-kindergarten and significantly improving training and pay for teachers, which would bring more qualified candidates to the profession.

Utah and Massachusetts, along with New Hampshire, have also moved forward with plans to implement some of the recommendations from the report.

Tracy said he wants to start work on developing the test as soon as possible, but didn’t have a specific date in mind for implementation.

“We want to go slowly and gently to make sure that we have local decision-makers participating in the discussion,” he said.

Hollis/Brookline senior Phil DelSignore, 17, said leaving high school early might mean missing out on some courses that would make more sense to take at the high school level, not in college.

Hollis/Brookline Principal Tim Kelley hadn’t heard much about the proposal, but said his initial reaction was to wait and see the final details before jumping to any conclusions.

“There’s a certain level of maturity that comes with being a college student that I’m not sure all students have after 10th grade,” he said.

Kelley said there already are programs at the high school level that allow for students to get a jump-start on college, either through courses at the high school or taking courses off site.

Kelley questioned who would be paying for the community college courses and how the proposal would coincide with the state’s recent decision to require students to stay in school until they’re 18.

Tracy said that would likely be left up to the students, though nothing has been decided yet. There would be opportunities for students to defer the costs through state aid and other means, he said.

David Ryan, principal of Nashua High School North, said he would be most concerned about losing the school’s top-level students, many of whom take leadership positions in the school in their junior and senior years.

“They add to the school culture and its morale,” he said.

Ryan also said he would be concerned that some students who may be academically ready to start taking college courses may not be ready socially and emotionally.

“It’s not until you get to be 17 or 18 that you really start to come into your own,” he said.

Tracy has expressed a desire for New Hampshire to also be part of the national discussion around rewriting the federal No Child Left Behind act, using his “Follow The Child” program as a model.