BROOKLYN — It’s now easier for some city high schoolers to get a diploma, especially if they’re getting hands-on work experience through their schools.
Under recently changed graduation requirements approved by the state, students will only have to take four of the five Regents exams required to graduate if they can obtain a skills certificate, known as a Career Development and Occupational Studies credential, instead.
Under the occupational studies program, students can fulfill 216 hours of on-location learning at vocational training sites or internships, ranging from woodworking to computer programming.
Until this spring, only students with special needs were eligible for the alternative graduation credit program. Fewer than 2,000 students across the state achieved their diploma with this standard in the 2014 school year, records show.
Disabilities advocates, however, fought to expand it to all students, arguing that schools needed an incentive to bolster these career-focused programs and put more resources into them.
“By limiting [this certificate] to students with disabilities, we had concerns that it would stigmatize students with disabilities,” said Abja Midha, a project director at Advocates for Children.
“We heard concerns about the quality and nature of the work-based programs. Now that it’s available to all students, [the] hope is it results in developing a more robust program.”
Midha and other advocates have been pushing the state to create additional avenues for students to get their diplomas ever since it transitioned away from a local diploma option in favor of the Regents test-based diploma.
“There was no plan focusing on how do we best serve the needs of all students or recognition that a one-size approach does not fit needs of all students who aren’t good test takers,” she said.
Other changes the Board of Regents made to expand pathways to graduation include making it easier for students to appeal a Regents exam they failed.
Previously, students could appeal if they scored between 62-64 out of 100. Now, they can appeal a score as low as 60.
In addition, students who want to appeal failing scores no longer need to prove that they had a 95 percent or better attendance rate — which advocates say was important since many failing students are re-taking the test and may have had to go back to work or be otherwise unavailable for classes.
The state estimates that an additional 4,800 students — particularly low-income students and English Language Learners — would have met the testing requirements had the expanded appeal process been around in 2010, officials said.
John Foley-Murphy, director of Red Hook’s South Brooklyn Community High School, which is run in partnership with Good Shepherd Services, is hopeful that the new Regents appeal process will be a big help for students just shy of graduating.
In years past, his transfer school — with 166 over-aged but under-credited students — rarely had more than one student appeal their Regents. This year, under the new program, 12 of its students have sent in appeals, he said.
“Once they fall into that category where they’re taking the global studies Regents for the seventh time but can’t appeal because of the attendance — I’ve known kids who become dropouts and their lives fall apart because they drop out,” Foley-Murphy said.
For students on the edge of getting their diplomas, when they don't, he said, “Overnight they go from, ‘in spite of all my best efforts I didn’t make it,’ to ‘I made it because all of my best efforts’,” which, he said, has a tremendous psychological impact.
He cautioned that the work required to include vocational or work-site internships would take a lot of resources — which many schools don't have.
His school, for example, is blocks from a bevy of small manufacturing, like welding companies, cabinet makers and automotive shops. As of now, their students can work 20 hours for these businesses and the school pays them to do so. But that program doesn't meet the requirements for the certificate, he said.
To provide a path for the certificate would involve a "total repurposing” of what the school does now, he added. “That’s not what those employers signed up to do. It would restructure the relationship and take time and funding."
“We have kids placed in these firms where they learn real life skills, but the whole point is to give them a glimpse of the future so they don’t give up on diploma,” Foley-Murphy added.