No plans after high school? No cap and gown

When millions of high school seniors receive their diplomas in ceremonies across America this week, most will wonder what the future holds. It's only natural.

At 14 high schools in the San Fernando Valley here, 3,764 graduating seniors already know – at least for the near term. With the steady prodding of school administrators, they've been thinking seriously about the prospects in a focused and detailed way for at least 18 months. They had to. If they did not submit a written plan – for college, the military, a trade school, or a job – they would not be able to wear cap and gown for graduation ceremonies.

For a year and a half, Robert Collins, superintendent of District C of the Los Angeles Unified Schools, has pushed and cajoled to make his controversial idea become a reality.

Yesterday, as graduation ceremonies unfolded, his plan seemed to have worked: Not a single senior in his 14 high schools failed to develop a "postsecondary commitment," as the written plans are called. And some experts suggest that, given today's economic realities, all high schools ought to be considering Mr. Collins's program.

Still, some students have balked, some parents have complained that the plan is unconstitutional, and some teachers have mixed feelings.

"It's none of their business what we do after graduation," says Reseda High School senior Linda Frederickson. "If you attended classes and passed, there's no reason you shouldn't get to walk across the stage."

But Collins has won over a majority of critics with compelling statistics: a 10 percent decrease in the district's drop-out rate and a 10 percent increase in the number of students admitted to the University of California – one of the most demanding in the country. For minorities, college admissions rose 150 percent for African-Americans, 31 percent among Chicanos.

"For all the critics who have said this is none of our business, I say I think this is the business of education," says Collins.

When the second-largest school district in US (Los Angeles Unified) was restructured two years ago, Collins took over District C and immediately acted on his philosophy. "I think schools have a responsibility to help, guide, encourage, and counsel young people into their futures," he says explains.

National experts say the plan is unusual but laudable because it gets students to consider the realities of the work or academic world they'll move into. Many say the merits of the idea depend on how well it is executed and how much lead time students are given.

"It has been tempting for educators to look at this and say, 'oops, he's gone too far,' " says Katy Haycock, director of Education Trust, a national education advocacy group. "But when you look at what they've done – and realize that, in this economy, if students don't have some postsecondary education or training, they won't survive – you become quite impressed with what they've achieved."

Ms. Haycock says the idea is the cutting edge of a national trend to be more methodical and systematic in the appraisal of kids at the end of high school. Florida and Illinois recently began assessing students in 11th grade, she says, "and both schools and families are discovering a wealth of talent they didn't know they had. More and more educators are realizing it would be irresponsible to not do what Collins is doing."

The idea has merit "if the school district [provides] intensive counseling for students from 8th grade on, where college plans are formulated and the appropriate courses begin," says Michael Kirst, professor of education at Stanford University.

Collins didn't have that much lead time with yesterday's graduates but has still overcome the initial doubts of many students. All students had the option to forego the plan by filing a formal waiver – but none did.

"When we first heard about this, we were all like, 'oh no, I don't want to do this,' " says 17-year old senior, Crystal Williams. After working with counselors and parents on a goals sheet, she developed both a short-term strategy that included "Plan A" (social worker) and "Plan B" (paramedic), as well as the long-term possibility of law school.

"I loved the fact that they were treating me as more than just a schoolgirl." says Ms. Williams, who graduated with a 3.6 grade-point average. "They gave me the confidence to try things I might not have otherwise."

Collins says that although college is held up as a worthy goal, no judgment is made on the relative merits of students' choices. The idea is to get students to realize that, whatever dreams or plans they have, they must take formal steps to embrace them.

"Many of these kids have no idea that if you want to enter some trades you have to join a union and be trained by that union," says Collins. "We wanted to make sure they knew what it meant to be considering one option or the other so they wouldn't be stopped cold the day they set out on their own."

For many students, the process was no big deal, because they had long planned to go to college. Others say it was just the push they needed to get things together.

One student who once thought he'd settle for being a short-order cook is now enrolled in culinary school to become a chef. A girl who wanted to be a court reporter is now enrolled in a Phoenix school that specializes in such training. A boy who was going to do nothing at all because he thought his grades would keep him out of college applied anyway ... and was accepted.

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