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Idaho plan would pay kids to graduate early

Idaho lawmakers have proposed giving scholarships to high school students who enroll in college early.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Every high school has at least a handful of them, gifted students who blow through Faulkner as if it were a comic book, teenagers who catch on to calculus as if it were checkers.

These students are often just marking time in high school and typically become bored and withdrawn as they long for a bigger academic challenge.

States are responding to the problem by making it easier for gifted students to head off to college sooner.

Idaho lawmakers have proposed giving scholarships to high school students who enroll in college early. Eight other states are participating in a program that would allow high school sophomores to pass a series of tests and graduate early. A Utah lawmaker earlier went so far this year as to propose letting students skip the senior year.

"There's a fair amount of wasted time," said Rep. Steve Thayn, a Republican from the small Idaho farming town of Emmett. "I think there's a way to keep them engaged and to keep them learning."

Idaho's plan goes further than other programs around the country because it would allow students to graduate from high school up to three years early, and then receive taxpayer money to enroll at a state university or community college. Students would receive approximately $1,600 in scholarship money for each year they graduate early.

Focusing on higher-achieving students
About half the states encourage juniors and seniors to take community college courses, with some of them picking up the tab, said Mike Griffith, a policy analyst at the Education Commission on the States in Denver. But those students stay high school while taking college credit, not moving onto a university campus like the Idaho plan.

Idaho Rep. Branden Durst sees the idea as a way to focus on higher-achieving students instead of the struggling kids who usually draw the most attention from education officials.

"We spend a lot of time talking about the bottom third and we should, but we do that to the detriment to our higher-achieving students," said Durst, a Democrat from Boise who co-sponsored the measure.

The plan has passed the House and still needs approval from the Senate.

In Utah, a state lawmaker pushed a plan earlier this year that would have let some students skip the 12th grade if they've earned enough high school credits.

Sen. Chris Buttars decided to abandon the effort in late February, but he plans to bring revamped legislation back in 2011, calling accelerated graduation the future of public education.

From New Mexico to Pennsylvania, eight states nationwide are participating in a pilot program that would allow high school sophomores to graduate early, getting a head start on community college. The program, spearheaded by the National Center on Education and the Economy, would include 10 to 20 high schools in each state and start in 2011. Connecticut, Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont are also participating.

‘No one's really tried this’
The federal Department of Education in 2001 spearheaded a national effort by several groups to create a system where students could more easily graduate in the 11th grade. It didn't get much traction as many teenagers were reluctant to miss big events such as senior proms, Griffith said.

But the idea of early graduation has been gaining momentum lately, and Idaho could potentially take the lead if the legislation is approved.

"No one's really tried this," Griffith said. "If (students are) ready to go to college in the 11th grade they should be allowed to go to college, states need to start thinking about that."

‘High school was too easy’
Early graduation would not only help the smart kids, but also open doors for those who are simply driven, said Emma Roemhildt, an 18-year-old from Cordova, Alaska, who started earning college credit when she was still in high school.

"High school was too easy and it is for many students," Roemhildt said. "There needs to be something for the students who aren't geniuses, but are above average enough to go beyond their peers."

Lori Shewmaker is among parents in Idaho backing the plan to pay kids in scholarships to graduate early. She believes her son, a sixth-grader who reads at a 10th-grade level, could be among those to benefit.

"He can be a mess-around or he can be an astrophysicist," said Shewmaker. "I feel like he is being held back."

Financial sense?
Some critics of the Idaho plan have voiced concerns about the social implications of enticing kids to graduate early. Are universities and colleges ready for an influx of 17-year-olds? Do they want 16-year-olds living in dorms with 20 year-olds? One lawmaker went further, predicting some students might not use the time they save wisely.

"Do we really want our kids sort of hanging around the canals of Amsterdam, as they do in Europe, selling drugs or whatever at age 16, not going on to college, not making anything of themselves?" said Rep. Steve Hartgen, a Republican.

Some Idaho lawmakers believe their plan makes financial sense at a time of escalating budget woes.

Idaho taxpayers now pay public school districts about $4,593 a year for each of their students, according to Thayn and Durst. The early graduation plan would save the state money by taking gifted students out of the school system and distributing the money left over after paying for the scholarships to districts and the state.