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Warner, Students Discuss Reform

Gov. Mark Warner seeks input from local seniors on how to improve high schools around the country.

<bt>Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D) chose Marshall High School, with its myriad of advanced classes and academy programs, as the setting to announce his intentions to institute reforms to high schools around the country. Warner is in a position to change the way high-school students earn college credit because he was recently named the chairman of the National Governors Association (NGA).

After conducting a press conference to announce the types of reform he would like to see at the high-school level, including allowing seniors to receive college credit for classes offered at community colleges, he sat down with more than 25 students to hear their views on his plan and what they would like to see to keep seniors engaged during their final year at high school.

“Whether you’re college-bound or career-bound, we need to make sure your senior year is more valuable,” said Warner.

THE STUDENT BODY represented around the table has all the educational opportunities Northern Virginia can afford and is a far cry from many of the high schools in other parts of the state that do not have access to either advanced studies or career-building classes. All of the students attending the forum stated that they were bound for college and were currently taking advanced study classes.

Warner expressed disbelief at the turn the conversation took when he opened the floor to students’ questions. The young academics peppered Warner with sophisticated questions ranging from the feasibility of later start times at school to increasing in-state acceptance numbers and getting seniors credit for a variety of classes.

When Warner wanted to discuss the “senior slump," a phrase that describes a graduating senior's tendency to slack off while waiting for college to start, a student turned the conversation another way by explaining that it isn’t possible to slump when the student is taking advanced courses. “The fact that you have to do well on that [final] test to get credit kind of counteracts the senior slump,” the student said.

Warner explained that he is working, through the NGA, to develop a standardized plan that would allow high-achieving students to earn college credit by taking classes at their local community college. Educators have said that plan would help defray tuition costs because students would be able to complete some core courses before entering a four-year institution.

“What we’re trying to do is work out with the publics and some of the privates is, let’s standardize this,” Warner told the seniors. “It would make some sense if the kids who have a high proficiency in these areas get college credit,” Warner added.

Through discussions with his office and the NGA, Warner said, colleges and universities are starting to change their traditional position on college credits earned outside of the four-year institution. “What their argument has been is that if we’re going to hold these higher standards, we want them to have a U.Va. education that takes place on our campus. They are much more agreeable now about saying maybe we ought to take some of the courses,” Warner said.

Senior Robert Carlson asked Warner, “In this new reform, is there going to be increased acceptance of in-state students?”

“This is part of an issue, with your group, the hardest core, all wanting to go to the top schools," Warner said. "I know I’m talking to a tough audience.”

WARNER WENT ON to explain that the top Virginia colleges are largely making an economic decision when taking so many out-of-state students. “In-state tuition is about $6,000, so there’s a dollars-and-cents thing here. Part of it is making up the differential with out-of-state tuitions,” Warner said. Warner said he was doubtful that the 35 percent out-of-state student ratio would change in the near term.

Recognizing that all Virginia high schools do not have the advantages of Marshall, Warner addressed an initiative to stem dropout rates and help youths build a future through trade learning at high schools for non-college-bound students.

Certification training for careers such as an electrician, said Warner, could help children stay in school. “We’ve got high-school dropouts that say, what’s a diploma going to do for me? We can make a pitch that high school is going to get you a skill,” said Warner.

Recently, Warner has insisted that hundreds of trade instructors go back to school and receive accreditation. “This is the thing that really blew my mind, when we found out so many weren’t certified themselves but were teaching,” Warner said.

Warner also expressed an interest in developing a tracking system that gives more accountability in monitoring how students and teachers are doing. Ultimately, he would like to be able to trace backward which students at a school are excelling, to the teacher responsible, and then to see what college that teacher attended and which courses he may have taken that are making a difference in his ability to educate.

That same system, said Warner, would enable the schools to more effectively track how students are doing throughout their careers and enable authorities to have an accurate record of student performance.

“If a student leaves Fairfax County and goes on to Loudoun, Fairfax will count that student as not having graduated, even if they were to go on to Harvard and do well,” said Warner.

While the students said they appreciated the efforts to get more students to complete high school and to revamp the system, they also urged Warner not to concentrate so heavily on the senior class but to go back to the elementary schools to make a difference.

Cynthia Wu is concurrently getting her Cysco and Network Administration certificates as she attends high school. Looking directly at the governor, she said, “I think spending all the money on high school, well, some of the money should go to the elementary schools, which is where we learn all our skills. The skills we learn there are what we use in high school.”

Wu’s urging pushed Warner into the topic of No Child Left Behind, a federal government initiative to ensure all children in American schools succeed academically. “No Child Left Behind is a tough one because the idea makes sense. But if you peel it back and say this school is 85-percent white and 15-percent minority, and the minority students aren’t doing well, is that school as good as it says it is? It’s going to take more flexibility from Bush or Kerry on No Child Left Behind. [They need to] keep the best of No Child Left Behind and add some flexibility and resources,” said Warner.

ON OCCASION, the savvy seniors caught the governor off guard with their questions. Jason Heath told Warner he was less than pleased that the U.S. government was giving his personal information to branches of the military that were contacting him for recruitment. “I feel it’s kind of a violation of my privacy,” said Heath. When Warner responded that he didn’t think the government did that, Heath said they did and asked the governor if he’d missed a big article done on the subject by The Washington Post.

Warner promised to look into that and said, “As you move into these student ID systems ... all this stuff you’ve got to manage so you don’t violate kids' privacy.”

Sensing an opportunity existed at the close of the forum, senior Raymond Daly spoke up and asked the governor to deliver the keynote address at their graduation on June 22, 2005. Warner promised, “If I do any high school this year, I’ll do yours.”