LARGO — Starting this school year, some high school seniors across the state will see “merit” and “scholar” designations on their high school diplomas, but students in Pinellas County Schools will have a third option: the Pinellas County Advanced Scholar.
School Board member Robin Wikle likened the diploma seals to “gold stars you would get on your homework.” They don’t preclude a student from graduating high school or affect their chances of getting into a particular university but primarily serve as a planning tool for students and their parents, said Director of High School Education Rita Vasquez.
“We’re focused on ensuring that kids meet their goals post-graduation and ensuring they’re not alone to do that planning,” Vasquez said.
The three “pathways to graduation” the school district will begin promoting to students this school year are the merit designation, for students that achieve an industry certification while in school, the scholar designation, for students that plan on entering a two- or four-year university after high school, and Pinellas County’s own advanced scholar designation, for students that meet all the requirements for the scholar seal while also scoring a three or higher on three Advanced Placement exams — an accomplishment that also qualifies them for college credit.
“We’re adding that third one because we believe our students should have higher standards, and it gives them an idea of where they are and what they need to do to step up,” said Superintendent Michael Grego. “You have to view all of these as planning tools. If you have a three- or four-year goal, like a list of classes you need to go to a good college or get a job after school, you are much more likely to reach that goal.”
The standards for getting a typical high school diploma will change this year, as well. Students still have to pass U.S. history and biology courses, but they are no longer required to pass end-of-course exams. Students must have unweighted grade-point averages of 2.0, and seniors graduating after 2014 will be required to take one course online.
For the merit designation, students will have to earn at least one industry certification in addition to fulfilling standard graduation requirements; for the scholar designation, students must pass algebra, biology and U.S. history end-of-course exams, earn credits in Algebra 2, chemistry or physics, statistics or another math class that’s equally as rigorous and earn two credits in a foreign language.
Students may qualify to earn all three seals if they take the classes, Vasquez said.
“That’s really the strength of these plans is that students can see where they’re at and where they can step up or change plans at any time,” Grego said. “It all promotes higher achievement and higher standards.”
Linda Lerner and the other school board members were excited about the new designations, though they wanted to ensure that students “weren’t too worked up over this.”
Universities will accept students before they even know if they have a gold seal on their diplomas, School Board Chair Carol Cook said. Many admissions officers are still finding out about the new designations as Pinellas school district members share information with them about the advanced scholar seal.
That doesn’t mean, however, the seals are entirely meaningless. In the future, the state will begin tracking how many merit and scholar seals come out of individual schools and school districts, said Vasquez, who predicted the new designations will soon become a bragging point for Florida schools to show how many merit or scholar students they have.