In a controversial move that will cost the Gilbert Unified School District an estimated $1.3 million, high school students will be required to have 23 credits to graduate.
The policy goes into effect starting with next year’s freshman class.
The Gilbert school board voted 3-2 to approve the new policy late Tuesday night in a standing-room-only meeting that drew more than 100 people. More than 30 parents and students spoke out against the proposal, and board members received more than 85 e-mails pleading with them not to approve any graduation requirements above the new 22-credit state mandate. They urged the board to postpone the decision until more parents could give their opinion and the district could do more research on the ramifications.
Parents said they wanted choice and flexibility in their child’s education. They said it would cost the district too much money in this economic downturn. And, they said it would hurt all students, from those struggling with learning disabilities to those who participate in extracurricular activities and already have too much homework.
Many of the parents said they will move their children to neighboring school districts that will only require 22 credits to graduate.
The Gilbert board responded by backing down from the original 24-credit requirement proposal. Board member Elaine Morrison, who is in her last month on the board, suggested instead the 23 credits, saying she was “very interested in preserving choice” and “preserving flexibility.” Many of the parents in the audience laughed when Morrison said this.
“I don’t want the Arizona mandate to come at the expense of electives,” Morrison said.
Seniors graduating in 2013 must have four years of math and three years of science. Many school districts added those state requirements and took away elective credits.
The Gilbert district’s extra credit will require students to take an extra elective. The Tempe Union High School District also approved a 23-credit graduation requirement last month, and the Queen Creek Unified School District is expected to propose the same at the Dec. 16 board meeting.
Gilbert board president Helen Hollands said she was “torn unbelievably” in her decision, but believed the extra credit would give the students the freedom the parents wanted.
“I do think that having electives is important for a well-rounded student,” Hollands said. “In my mind, a full high school education is four full years of education. It’s a tough hurdle for me to lower those electives.”
The parents argued that the extra class is just another requirement, and there is no “wiggle room” for students who need to make up a credit. Parents said they will be forced to pay for summer school or distance learning classes for their children to earn extra credits.
Parent Tricia Johnson said she is disappointed at the board’s decision and felt the board is working “completely independent of the will of the people.”
“As parents we were there last night in regards to the issue of graduation requirements. But leaving that meeting I felt that the bigger issue was that they completely ignored the voice of Gilbert who they are elected to represent,” said Johnson, who has five children. “You have all of these residents and you don’t have the courage enough to table it.”
Board member Lily Tram voted against the new policy, joining board clerk Van Dunham who had already publicly denounced any graduation requirements that would hinder students with learning disabilities.
Dunham agreed with the parents, saying he believes there can be flexibility and choice without increasing credits. This received a standing ovation from the audience.
“I’m concerned of the unintended consequences we haven’t thought of,” said Dunham, whose 30-year-old son took three extra years to graduate from the district because of his learning disabilities. “The more we can leave it open and protect the student’s time is important.”
Newly-elected board member EJ Anderson, who was sworn in Tuesday and will join the board in January, said she does not support the credit increase. She also said she agreed with most of the parent’s comments and was surprised the board approved the policy.
“I think that this new state mandate in itself will be a challenge and we need to focus our energies on making sure students are successful in those classes,” Anderson said. “There’s plenty of room for those students who want to go on and get those extra credits. The decision should be left up to the parent and the student.”
Parent Jill Humpherys, who has two children who will be affected by the credit increase, said she thinks the board did listen by only approving 23 credits. However, she said she still would have preferred for the “flexibility” for her children.
But, she added, “I’m concerned for those who are struggling. I think it would be hard for them, and I really feel for those kids.”
Mesquite High School freshman Brice Rushing, one of two students who spoke at the meeting, said with her honors classes, cheer, track and church commitments, it’s going to be even harder to take more classes.
“There’s too many pressures as is,” Rushing said. “It will add extra stress.”
Superintendent Dave Allison said the district will have to hire an estimated 30 extra teachers to accommodate the credit increase. With the average cost per teacher at $56,109, that would be an estimated cost of $1.3-$1.6 million, he said.
However, since the Gilbert district has a $200 million budget, this cost would be 1.13 percent of the teacher salary portion, Allison said.
District officials also said they are working on “creative” solutions to give students different opportunities to earn credits, and to help those who need to make up credits.
Two former longtime Gilbert board members, Myrna Sheppard and Julia McCleve, also came out to the meeting to voice their opposition. They both said this was the first time an issue spurred them to come to a meeting and speak out.
“They did the exact opposite of what we were asking,” said Sheppard, who was on the board from 1984 to 2000. “I thought it was ridiculous. I feel for the parent’s frustrations.”