The Easton Area Board of Education on Tuesday night adopted more rigorous graduation requirements that mandate all high school students complete four years of math and science courses.
The board's 5-4 decision was made amid a whirlwind of controversy, including claims from multiple board members that the central administration offered new information at the 11th hour in an apparent attempt to discourage the board from adopting the new graduation requirements at this time.
Under the board's decision, the current three-year math and science requirement to graduate is being expanded to four years, starting with this year's freshman class.
"It would be ridiculous to not want more academic rigor," Board Vice President William Rider said, noting that four years of English and social studies are already required, but not math and science. "This is an opportunity to improve students' skills base and real-world opportunities."
The board had also considered expanding the total number of credits required for graduation from 24.5 to 26.5, but ultimately opted to stay with 24.5 credits.
Board member Janet Matthews, who voted against the graduation requirement revisions, called out the administration for providing what she said was new, last-minute information that's "very confusing, upsetting and shocking." The information, she said, was provided on Jan. 24. She said this information should have been made available earlier, noting that discussions about the graduation requirements have been ongoing for many months.
Director of Teaching and Learning Stephen Furst said the Jan. 24 memo simply reiterated and expanded upon points that had already been discussed with board members.
The administration cited several reasons for the board to hold off on adopting the expanded graduation requirements at this time, among them an estimated cost increase in excess of $500,000 to hire 4-5 new teachers, additional textbooks and other resources for the additional students taking a fourth year of math and science; and additional learning support for special needs students.
Other concerns raised by the administration included a reduction in elective credit offerings, which they say would adversely impact career-bound and non-traditional students.
Board Member Frank Pintabone supported staying with the current graduation requirements, noting that students already have the option of taking a fourth-year of math and science. Pintabone said he feared the more stringent math and science requirements will result in fewer overall course options for students, especially ones not going to college.
"We all want every student to have a dream, but I don't believe we should decide that dream for them," he said.
The administration also noted the expanded graduation requirements would no longer allow for some 30 students who participate in the work release program. "These are our poverty-level students who have no plans on going to college and need to work for a living now to support their families," states a report from the administration.
Information provided by the administration noted about 70 student who have failed math be required to make up the third-unit in their senior year as well as 50 science students who have to do the same. Adding a fourth year of instruction in these areas, the administration said, could result in the dropout rate of 13% jumping even higher. The statewide dropout rate is 10%. Any increases in dropouts could result in state aid losses, according to the administration.
The administration recommended retaining the current scheduling structure for the 2013-14 school year, and for the board to instead consider making the four-year math/science requirement take effect with the incoming eighth grade students "to coincide with the new Keystone graduation requirements and to amortize the effects of adding staff and other necessary resources over time."
Rider said he believes the administration will have plenty of time to full implement the new graduation requirements for the current 9th grade class. Since the fourth year of math and science curriculum won't be in place until the current 9th grade class's senior year, Rider said the administration essentially has two-and-a-half years to "work out any kinks"and fully implement.
Since the board decided to stay with 24.5 credits needed for graduation, at least one board member questioned the administration's concern about needing to hire more teachers to implement the new grad requirements.
In the end, Board member Robert Moskaitis said the decision to add a fourth year of math/science is all about raising the bar.
"If you have low expectations, they're generally met," he said. "I want higher expectations. I think this is a vote of confidence in our students."
Since implementing the new graduation requirements will be a work in progress into the foreseeable future, Superintendent Susan McGinley suggested the matter be placed on every board agenda for updates.