Red Deer’s high school completion rate is 69 per cent, compared to Alberta’s 72 per cent. Our city graduates about 1,200 Grade 12 students a year, so the gap between here and elsewhere represents about 35 students — make that one classroom’s worth.
Over the years, that adds up. If you want an honest accounting, 1,200 students only represents 69 per cent of the total; so the number of students not completing their courses by the end of their 12th year of public schooling is actually quite large: 539 students.
But you also have to realize that the majority of students who do not complete Grade 12 in the required years from Grade 9 up, do eventually complete high school — many in the year following their grad year. So the rates we see posted in the newspaper, although hardly stellar, need not really be so alarming.
There is a cost to both students and taxpayers in giving hundreds of students an extra year of high school. So it is worth some effort to get our completion rates up.
Since the public school district is asking for solutions to this problem, let’s propose one here. Let’s make high school less intellectual.
The majority program for high school students is the matriculation route — preparation for university or college.
That’s despite the fact that fewer than half of high school grads go on to complete degrees. The effect of that is that many students are getting a high school training unsuitable for their next steps in life.
That’s not a problem of students making poor course selections, nor even of school guidance counsellors steering too many kids into the wrong programs. As a parent, I’ll suggest that a lot of parents are pushing their kids into the “academic” route, so as not to limit their choices later on.
When you look at the larger picture — the portion of the total student body going on to earn degrees — perhaps parents and school administrators alike might wonder what the true limiting factor might be for student choices.
High school already allows a lot of choices for course paths leading to careers in trades. What if these choices could be expanded to include more students who are also in the academic path; at least in Grades 9 and 10, before some hard life decisions need to be made?
We see other jurisdictions (Britain comes to mind) that stream kids early into either trades or academics. What if we could allow more students to keep their feet in both streams for as long as possible? Would we be widening their choices (something parents would value) or diluting them?
Let’s suggest here that one or two semesters between Grade 9 and 10 of pure trades training need not disqualify students who yearn for credits toward university entrance.
And that at the end of high school, the majority of grads who do not end up on a university campus might have better fundamental skills for further training in a career that is enriching both physically and intellectually.
Having more university students who can properly swing a hammer or fix a leaking sink would be a good thing.
Having more welders and heavy equipment operators who have at least been exposed to a course in critical thinking or calculus would be a good thing, too.
Having more students graduate with exposure to a wide range of life choices would be best of all.
It’s not unreasonable to speculate that Red Deer’s demand for entry-level workers in the energy sector siphons off grads, or convinces them to take an extra year of high school to pick up courses they didn’t have because they had been “streamed” too early.
Those choices show up as a number on our district’s high school completion rates, but which doesn’t reflect the real situation.
Widening student choices in the early years might save them an extra year in school and taxpayers the cost of getting them ready to make real life choices.
Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.