At the end of the fall semester, 26 students graduated early from Highland High School, choosing to skip the final semester of their senior year.
“There used to be a lot of emphasis on the senior year,” said Highland Superintendent Mike Sutton. “But more kids are willing to forgo that last semester now than what we used to have.”
Students graduating early is typically good news for schools. Sutton said it means the district is doing its job and offering students opportunities to get a head start.
However, each student who graduates early has a financial impact on the district’s bottom line.
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The state of Illinois funds schools based on the number of students enrolled at two points in time, Oct. 1 and March 1. Sutton said 26 December graduates equates approximately $80,000 of funding the school district won’t receive from the state next year.
That’s roughly the salary of two teachers, during a time when the school board is making tough decisions on which programs should be brought back after years of difficult financial years.
“We love to open doors to opportunities for kids but there is a financial impact of so many kids graduating early,” Sutton said. “Generally, we’d have a single digit early graduates. So the numbers are certainly increasing.”
The District 5 School Board discussed the same issue last year as well, but the number of early graduates has only increased since then.
Generally, Sutton said, nearly all the students who graduate early are involved in band classes or the American School, a program that allows high school students to take distance learning courses at their own pace, often from home.
The district doesn’t want to discourage students from graduating early, Sutton said. It’s a good opportunity for students to get a head start in their profession or earn money for college. However, he said, of the 26 students who graduated early, half said they would have finished their second semester if more co-op, or cooperative education jobs were available.
The district recently added more co-op opportunities for high school students and added an additional home and consumer sciences position, which Sutton said could curb the number of students graduating early.
Even if the number of early graduates was cut in half there still would be a financial impact.
“If 26 becomes 13, it’s still 13 kids leaving during their senior year but the impact financially isn’t nearly as significant.”
At a recent school board meeting, the topic was discussed before the board approved the 26 early graduations.
Sutton said deterring students from graduating early wasn’t a strong option, but the other option would be to accept the financial losses and live with them.
He said if the district decided it was best to deter students from graduating early, outside of adding courses that might keep students engaged in their final semester, the district could eliminate the American School program or increase graduation requirements.
“We could do that, but that’s not what we want to do,” Sutton said.
Board members were torn on the issue as well.
“You don’t want to be known as the high school where you can graduate in three or three and a half years or it will become routine,” said school board member Robert Miller.
Board Vice President Joe Mott said the district should be taking the issue up with the state. He said the district shouldn’t lose money when students work harder and graduate early.
Sutton said he wasn’t sure that would get the district very far, especially with the sheer number of schools in Illinois.
“We will voice our circumstance but I just don’t know that there’s a system that can take into account every school district in the state of Illinois and what they’re doing,” Sutton said.
The board agreed to discuss the issue at a future meeting.
Sutton said, going forward, the district plans to keep supporting students who work to graduate early.
“We’re focused on doing what’s best for kids and we’re going to continue to do that,” Sutton said. “We just have to understand that as we do that that there is a financial impact of allowing early graduation.”