New tracks for schools

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 21, 2013

The law creating a dual diploma system for North Carolina students may evoke memories of the bad old days of “tracking,” but supporters envision it as a step forward in the effort to better prepare high school graduates for college, for gainful employment in a career or both.
Whether it’s a step or a stumble will depend on its implementation and whether local school systems have adequate resources to enhance the Career and Technical Education programs that are already up and running in Rowan-Salisbury schools and others around the state. The legislation signed into law Monday, in Gov. Pat McCrory’s first stroke of the pen, sets out a broad goal of strengthening both vocational and academic preparedness. It will be up to the State Board of Education to decide what criteria students must meet to earn these endorsements on their diplomas. If those new designations are truly a seal of merit, and not simply a rubber stamp, it won’t just be employers who’ll benefit. So will colleges that are now having to offer remedial courses to freshmen who have diplomas but lack some of the basic skills needed to function at the college level.
It was encouraging to hear Rowan-Salisbury Superintendent Judy Grissom express optimism that the dual-track system appears to be a good fit with the system’s ongoing emphasis on preparing students for specific careers such as information technology or health sciences. The system’s partnership with Rowan-Cabarrus Community College also has laid the groundwork for the coordinated education strategies that will be necessarily to combine career-prep courses with academic studies. But as some school board members pointed out, the dual-track system shouldn’t limit students’ options or ambitions. However well-intentioned, the old tracking system too often wasn’t a path to a good job but a way to warehouse students deemed not “college material” — many of whom simply dropped out. A 21st-century dual-track system needs to expand horizons, not restrict options.
While schools are making inroads against the dropout rate, it remains a major problem. The dual-track diploma may help there, too, if students see that a career-preparedness diploma really can open doors. The dual-diploma system offers the promise of making that piece of paper mean more for all students — and motivating more of them to stay in school. This can build on initiatives that are already under way. But to keep building, schools will need clear guidance on the expectations, more strategic partnerships with colleges and businesses — and the resources to implement the changes envisioned.