Union Democrat staff

A proposal to cut Sonora High School's graduation requirement by 10 credits got a rough reception at the district board meeting last week - as well it should have.

At a time when California's per-student spending has plummeted to 47th among the 50 states and when students in other countries are outperforming their American counterparts in a number of academic fields, making a diploma easier to come by should not be considered without a compelling reason.

District Superintendent Mike McCoy's explanation was giving would-be graduates a margin for error they do not now enjoy.

Today, students who fail a class can make it up in summer school and still earn the necessary credits. But if budget cuts force elimination of the summer session, as administrators fear, such students may be out of luck and fall 10 credits short of a diploma.

By reducing required credits from 240 to 230, McCoy told trustees, students could fail one class, not make it up and still graduate. He said a number of districts around the state require less than a full load of credits to graduate and urged trustee to relax Sonora High's requirements accordingly.

The proposed change, which would kick in with next year's freshman class, did not go down well with many in the audience. A few quotes from last Wednesday's meeting:

• "Kids are lazy and they're not going to do any more than they have to," Jared Smith, sophomore.

• "I don't feel failing a class should be a luxury," Charlene Dambacher, school counselor.

• "We are lowering our standards," Sue Mundy, biology teacher.

• "Maybe students should fail early on and learn what they need to get by instead of the district giving them a false sense of what success is," Jeannine Strain, math teacher

• "To have a class of students who don't need to pass is counterproductive," Mel Ginn, trustee and former teacher.

After hearing such input, board members wisely deferred action and asked for more information - like how many students fail and what classes they fail in. A plethora of Fs in particular classes, indeed, could reveal new problems.

Trustees will also seek the views of department heads and, through student trustee Andrew Smith, what those who are actually working for their diplomas think.

Other concerns that were raised are whether reducing the credit requirement will lead to elimination of classes, teacher layoffs or any cuts to the school's vocational classes.

McCoy told trustees that the change is not proposed to save money. He also assured that the school's vocational program is being beefed up with $165,000 in improvements to the ag/welding shop and that a credit union may be set up on campus to teach kids about banking.

Also, make-up alternatives to summer school, like Columbia College or on-line classes, should be explored.

But a question asked by Trustee Ed Clinite last week may be the key to this debate: What will the district tell parents of credit-short students if summer school is no longer an option?

First off, we must assume that such students have failed a class - which is not easy to do. Failing students are given numerous warnings in their report cards and many avenues to raise their grades to passing.

"It isn't about whether kids are smart enough to do the work," said Sonora High Principal Todd Dearden. "They are. The reason kids fail classes is apathy. It takes quite a bit of effort to fail - you have to just not do anything."

On top of that, students meet annually with counselors to chart a path toward a diploma and those in jeopardy of falling short of graduation requirements meet with them more often. Finding out you are short of meeting graduation requirements, Dearden said, "is never a surprise."

So, as unpleasant as it might be, the district might consider telling upset parents of credit-short students the truth: Their kids didn't do the work and, thus, will not reap the rewards.