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After State Takeover, Aberdeen Seniors in Graduation Limbo

By Annie Gilbertson | Published 03 May 2012 04:14pm | comments
Graduation checks are underway statewide, but in Aberdeen, the community is worried. Photo via Flickr by RuffLife

The Mississippi Department of Education is completing its first audit of the Aberdeen School District since the system was taken over last week.  And task one is making sure high school seniors are qualified to graduate.  In past takeovers, these audits have left some seniors who were expecting to graduate unable to cross the stage.  MPB's Southern Education Desk reporter, Annie Gilbertson reports so called "graduation checks" are part of a comprehensive compliance crackdown.

Graduation from Aberdeen high school is weeks away. And seniors Amber Brasley, Bria McMillian and Takiana Strong are positively giddy as they count down the days.

Strong: You get ready to pass out your invitations. You get more happy to pass those out.

McMillian: Senior portraits.

Strong: Prom lets you know you are getting closer. Then the finals let you know you are a lot closer.

These young women have been best friends since elementary school, and say they have looked forward to this year for what seems like their whole life. But there is a chance one of them could be ineligible to graduate. If that happens, the culprit would likely be incomplete requirements, which would not have been discovered had the state not taken over the school district last week. Now auditors from Jackson are combing through every record. 

Amber Brasely says she's not worried.

Brasely: I know I have my grades. Number four in the class!

But Bria McMillian and Takinana Strong are upset by the possibility.

McMillian: If we don’t graduate together someone is going to be sad, because we are so close.

Strong: I’m just going to cry, because I’ve worked so hard to graduate.  Then a couple of weeks, you [could] find out you can’t graduate.

No one has yet been told they won't be graduating with their class. The audit began earlier this week when the Mississippi Department of Education Office of Accreditation arrived. But Dr. Paula Vanderford, the Director of MDE Accreditation, said red flags went up months ago.

Vanderford: Those records were checked pre-conservatorship and that’s when we identified the numerous inconsistencies.

Vanderford says Aberdeen High School graduation requirements were spelled out differently in different places.  For example, the handbook may have said one thing, but the student credit worksheets may have said something different.  Vanderford says the school didn't have a good picture of what exactly they were requiring, and senior records reflected that lack of organization. 

Vanderford: A lot of times it is just an incomplete record. There may be verification of a subject area test - passing that test - that is not in the folder.

So Vanderford's team looks around, makes some calls, and tries to verify the student has met the requirements.  But occasionally, students just don't have all the classes, grades or tests they need.

An earlier audit of last year's senior records showed 1 in 5 of the records reviewed were incomplete. All of those students still graduated, because the state wasn't on campus to complete the information and enforce standards.

Senior Bria McMillian says the sudden enforcement seems a little unfair.  If she were behind, she would have liked to have found out sooner, so she'd have had time to fix it.

McMillian: Everything has been going right until this final year.

Her mom, Lois McMillian, says she also struggles with the timing of the audit.

L. McMillian:  Because there is a less than a month before kids graduate and you know, to me, why are you looking into all this?

McMillian says she is all for the school improving now that the state has moved-in, but she wonders if graduation checks are too punitive.

L. McMillian: ….All of a sudden, the state wants to come in and take something [the students] have worked twelve years for.

Graduation is the capstone of twelve or thirteen years of work by a student, their parents and the school. But, new Aberdeen Conservator Bob Strebeck says meeting minimum standards is non-negotiable.

Strebeck: If a kid crosses any stage in May or June in the State of Missisisppi, those kids need to have met the requirements. And it is totally unfair if kids cross that stage and has not met those requirements.

Strebeck says that would dilute the significance the tens of the thousands of high school diploma's being awarded this month across the state. To him, it comes down to getting it right with Aberdeen or continue to short change education – and students - throughout Mississippi.

From the Southern Education Desk, for MPB News, I’m Annie Gilbertson.

Images

Graduation checks are underway statewide, but in Aberdeen, the community is worried. Photo via Flickr by RuffLife


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