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Students more prepared for real world today

Retiring district superintendent looks back at 32 years of education
By: Bart O'Brien
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On Saturday, a thousand students graduated from schools in the Placer Union High School District. Some people may wonder how ready these students are to enter the adult world. Recently, while sorting through a long-neglected file cabinet, I found an artifact that provides some insight into this question. In the back of a drawer was a 1977-78 Colfax High School student folder. Somehow this thing had survived from my first year of teaching. These folders were given to all students on the first day of class. The inside is covered in fine print, detailing school policies and procedures. Right up front is the attendance policy. It lists seven acceptable reasons for student absences. Now, in 2009, there are no “excused” absences. If the student is absent, the school gets no funding. The folder also describes the non-discrimination policy, which simply reflects the recent passage of Title IX and the expansion of all rights to females. It is much less complicated than the 21st century version — current students receive a 25-page parent notification packet that they are supposed to read and that their parents are required to sign. There are several other examples of our complex modern world, with its stringent legal climate and the increasing levels of accountability, but the most impressive difference is in the area of graduation requirements. The Class of 1978 faced no California High School Exit Exam. Today, every senior must pass this exam to earn a diploma. The test requires students to demonstrate their knowledge of reading, writing, vocabulary, and algebra. Well over 90 percent of this year’s graduates successfully completed the exam in the 10th grade. Students in the Class of 2009 have also spent accumulated weeks taking state assessments in their first three years of high school and throughout their K-8 years. These exams are reported as an API score that can provide some indication of the school’s quality. Students who score well earn a special designation on their diploma. Our current grads earn a minimum of 265 credits; in 1978, it was just 200. Students now take four years of English, two years of math, two of science and three of social science. In 1978, English, math and science units were half of those required today; only social science and PE have remained the same. In our district, every graduating senior must also complete the Senior Project. This is a culminating project that involves students “stretching” themselves to learn a new skill, explore a particular career, or provide some type of community service. Each student describes his or her project in a 10- to 12-minute speech to a panel of five adults, and they fulfill a range of related written assignments, as well. Finally, in 1978, college-bound students had no University of California A-G requirements to meet, no required community service projects, no brutal essays on their SAT exams, and no Advanced Placement or Honors courses. The University of California, in 1978, “recommended” students take a third year of math, science, or a foreign language. It would be impossible today to gain admission to the University of California with a transcript this meager! Indeed, as I look back on my 32 years, the changes are dramatic. Our students are far more prepared for life after high school, and they have been “tested” mentally, physically, and emotionally. This year’s class is an amazing group of individuals who have responded well to the changes we’ve thrown their way — congratulations to the Class of 2009! Bart O’Brien is the retiring superintendent of the Placer Unified High School District. He will be succeeded by current assistant superintendent, Dave Horsey, in the 2009-10 school year.