Skip a year of high school? You can in Florida.

With tight budgets and new class-size restrictions, the state will now grant diplomas for 18 credits instead of 24.

When Florida Gov. Jeb Bush found himself facing an extra $1 billion charge on the state's annual education bill following a public vote to reduce class sizes, he knew something would have to give.

In demanding that teacher-pupil ratios be improved, the public had imposed an intolerable burden on already-squeezed finances, he complained. There would have to be cuts elsewhere and plenty of creative thinking.

Now, as students settle into the new school year, some of that creative thinking is coming into play. In what is cynically referred to as "the hurry-up-and-graduate option," high-schoolers are being offered the chance to earn their diplomas with 18 credits rather than 24 - in effect finishing classes a year early.

Supporters of the plan say it provides greater flexibility for those eager to start college or other posthigh school aspirations. But opponents are vocal in saying that with only three years of high school, students could be sacrificing valuable learning opportunities and relegating themselves to the back of the queue for college slots.

"It goes against everything we advocate for our kids, which is accountability and academic rigor and the best preparation we can give them for college," says Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Art Johnson. "It is ill conceived and has an economic motive rather than an academic one."

Perhaps such opponents are taking comfort in the fact that just 1 percent of high school students are estimated to be opting for the program so far.

The Florida Department of Education is undeterred by the low takeup and says it will continue actively promoting its merits.

It freely admits it was partly motivated by the need to reduce class sizes over the next seven years, a proposal that was placed on last November's ballot and approved by 52 percent of voters after the state's pupil-teacher ratio was exposed as America's sixth worst.

But in offering high-schoolers the chance to skip their senior year, the DoE denies it is compromising their education and insists they can use it to their advantage.

"We believe there are some who have the academic capability and maturity level to benefit from this," says spokeswoman Frances Marine. "It's not going to be for every student. It's probably for the more advanced ones who could handle the course load, which will still be rigorous, and wouldn't mind being a year younger than others on campus."

She adds that the program may appeal to those wanting to pursue a military or vocational career. "There are also those who have a strong sense of where they want to go in their career - into a particular technical field or medical school, for example, and are looking at several years of higher education."

Under the plan, students can opt to skip several of the courses required of four-year graduates, such as physical education, fine arts, and health - omissions frowned upon by critics.

But they must still cram four years of English into three, along with three years of math and science, two of history, and six months each of government studies and economics. They also need two years of foreign languages and three other courses of their choosing.

So when they go knocking on college doors with only 18 credits when other applicants have 24, what will happen?

"They are going to come up looking a little less competitive than others," says John Barnhill, director of admissions at Florida State University. "From the admissions perspective, it will be an individual decision, but we are united in saying that four years in general are better than three. I can imagine some saying, 'I just don't like high school,' and I don't think quite honestly that's a good enough reason to leave."

He adds, "Students may be misled. I would hope they get individual advice, but when you look at the low student-to- counselor ratios, it's difficult to believe there's individual counseling going on."

Yet Steven Weigel, counselor at Naples High School where 22 students have chosen to skip their senior year, has confidence that each of them gave the matter careful consideration.

"Kids and their parents aren't stupid," he says. "They are well informed, and they make decisions based on what's best for their particular circumstances. There are some very talented students who have utilized the curriculum to maximum effect and would probably match up well to fourth-year students."

His school has 2,200 pupils and seven counselors - a ratio of 315 to 1. In neighboring Broward County, the average is 660 to 1 - one of Florida's least attractive pupil-counselor ratios.

The DoE, which reports that 120,000 high-schoolers graduated last year, advises careful reflection by current pupils considering dropping their senior year.

But Dr. Johnson sees it differently. "One of our biggest challenges today is to provide children with a sound education," he says. "We will not be doing them any favors for the future by compromising that."

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