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State panel expands ways for graduating high school

PIERRE -- Gov. Dennis Daugaard made a rare appearance before a state board Monday. He asked the South Dakota Board of Education Standards to provide more flexibility for students to earn high school diplomas. More than two hours later the board u...

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Gov. Dennis Daugaard in dark suit speaks with former state Education Secretary Don Kirkegaard before testimony began Monday at a public hearing on South Dakota's proposed new requirements for high school graduation. (Photo courtesy of Bob Mercer)

PIERRE - Gov. Dennis Daugaard made a rare appearance before a state board Monday.

He asked the South Dakota Board of Education Standards to provide more flexibility for students to earn high school diplomas. More than two hours later the board unanimously agreed.

The board added a requirement that the new rules be reviewed after Jan. 1, 2026.

All of the diplomas would continue to require 22 credits. But the basic diploma would become more flexible in some subjects. Three new endorsements also would be added. They are advanced, advanced career and advanced honors.

The final decision is up to the Legislature's Rules Review Committee. The proposal goes to the six lawmakers Aug. 20.

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The topic stirred more interest than others considered by the board in recent years. The board received 96 written comments through Friday. At least 15 people, ranging from two Harrisburg students to the governor, testified Monday directly or by telephone. Board member Kay Schallenkamp of Spearfish called the testimony "fantastic" because the comments helped clarify some matters. The written comments varied widely, in some instances supporting or opposing the same sections.

Board member Gopal Vyas of Mitchell said some of the opposition seemed to reflect confusion. But Vyas said he also saw why some thought state government was accepting a lower level.

"The changes that are proposed are for the better," Vyas said.

Daugaard said the new approach reflected long-term data his administration assembled last year. Of 100 students entering grade nine, 36 or 37 eventually received a university bachelor degree, he said. "We know they are disengaged," Daugaard said. "They don't see what they're learning in high school as relevant to what they are going to be doing in the real world."

He added, "This proposal is about flexibility, it's about choice and it's about exploration."

The changes didn't result from a task force, according to Education Secretary Mary Stadick Smith. She said some superintendents began discussing the concept at the same Daugaard's staff was doing its research. There were groups assembled that worked informally with her staff starting last fall, Stadick Smith said. Watertown Superintendent Jeff Danielsen testified by telephone in favor of the proposed changes. He participated in work-group meetings.

"It's the students on both ends," Danielsen said about young people who would benefit most, referring to potential dropouts and a workforce shortage on one hand, and students at the high end of their classes on the other.

Danielsen said "the overwhelming majority" of students would continue to follow their current pathways to graduation.

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School districts would begin listing students' choices on their transcripts in 2020. The department would collect data on the results in fall 2021. The board decided it wanted four years of graduation statistics for the review.

Aberdeen Superintendent Becky Guffin said she doesn't plan to make any widespread changes when classes start in August but there are some students who could benefit. Guffin, a state board member, said she wants to take time to analyze potential effects, such as how many classes of algebra 1 might be offered. "This is a change for us. It's very different," Guffin said. "It's great to have a plan, but the execution of the plan looks different."

Rapid City Superintendent Lori Simon suggested the board should slow its process. Simon said there wasn't much opportunity for feedback, worried about students' ability to shift paths and wanted to know if there was funding.

The math requirements proposed for the new basic diploma and advanced career endorsement don't seem to align with state standards, Simon added.

Rapid City's ratio of students per counselor is about 400 to one, Simon said, and mental health needs have been "skyrocketing." She asked whether the board and department looked at other states.

"We are nervous that the lure of the easier path might be something that a student or family might decide upon," Simon said.

Simon recommended the board "slow down the process a little bit more" and suggested "a thoughtful study by a task force." She also expressed concerns about the timeline and recommended the changes apply only to incoming grade-nine students and those younger.

Algebra 1 standards might be inadequate to match current workforce needs, according to Simon, and she called for geometry or some other math course to be required too.

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She also questioned the diploma names because three contain the word "advanced" and said more descriptive tiles would be better.

"Food for thought," Simon said. She also suggested expanding the extra-curricular credit to include speech or debate. Board member Scott Herman of Mission followed up. "The funding part of it, that's the real question," Herman said.

"At the state level? No," Stadick Smith replied.

Board member Lori Wagner of Webster asked how the department planned to disseminate information about the changes. Department official Laura Scheibe said the plan calls for providing talking points, handbooks and a web page.

"We stand ready to support the schools and get as much information out as we can," Scheibe said.

Wagner said many school districts have open houses in the fall.

"I think that's an excellent idea," Scheibe said.

"Because we're getting close - I know," Wagner said.

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