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SoVaNow.com / November 20, 2019
Lots of ground to cover with the news, so let’s try some giddyap and go:

» For reasons that ought to be obvious, it’s a fraught business criticizing county school boards for not doing enough for the students and families they’re supposed to serve. Resources are limited, budgetary powers-that-be are often heedless and unkind, and the demands on public school divisions — and on the trustees entrusted with oversight authority (which in Virginia, comes with no ability to raise revenue) — are practically without limit.

Still, there are times in life when decisions are simply bad and there’s no getting around the fact. And by bad, we’re talking two ways: in outcome, and in process. When you put the two together .... well, the result is what you have with the Mecklenburg County School Board’s recent vote to get rid of Advanced Placement classes at both county high schools.

You may be familiar with the backdrop of the story — this all began because several trustees were justifiably upset that the dual enrollment programs at Bluestone and Park View are separate and decidedly not equal. Park View has a (more or less) full-fledged DE program, wherein students can earn community college associates degrees in high school, while Bluestone program is too stripped bare to allow the same. It didn’t help matters when teaching resources were shifted from one high school to the other, leaving Bluestone students with not enough available course offerings to earn an associates. It’s no surprise that people would cry foul about this.

So, in response, and without consulting people on the ground in the know — that is, teachers — the trustees cancelled AP programs at both schools. Say what? Look, I get the argument: If a School Board isn’t willing or able to invest adequate resources in dual enrollment, what business does it have maintaining a parallel course load of Advanced Placement classes? Both dual enrollment and AP are designed to prepare students for college. Dual enrollment is supposed to do even more — because Virginia public colleges and universities accept qualifying scores as college credit, DE completers are supposed to be able to enter four-year universities with one or two years of college already under their belts. The savings, as anyone who has ever had a kid in college will know, are potentially enormous.

And sure, sometimes it actually works this way — but the theory (and practice) grows mighty thin. Public universities outside of Virginia, and in-state private colleges, too, have gotten to the point of basically ignoring DE credits, or offering students their due and then requiring them to take other courses, which in effect thwarts any chance to cut corners. Colleges and universities also offer credits to students who score satisfactorily on their AP exams, without any notion of allowing them to skip entire semesters or even years of academic coursework. In other words, with DE and AP it’s six of one and half-dozen of the other, and be sure to get your checks in to the student finance office on time.

It’s tempting to think this trend away from accepting dual enrollment credits is just another money grab by higher ed, but there’s a problem: Dual enrollment’s record of leaving high school students with a bona fide grasp of college material is spotty to say the least. Complaints about lack of classroom rigor with DE have mounted as more and more high school degree earners go off to college and flop, especially as they skip forward to their sophomore and junior years. No one who has ever been in high school — which is to say most of us — should be surprised by any of this. Young students can do great things, and so can their teachers, but there’s a world of difference between high school and college, as any freshman in college who endures the fire-hose of first-year reading assignments and term papers can tell you.

Both AP and DE have their pluses and minuses, and their defenders will sharply disagree on which program is more rigorous, although it’s noteworthy that county teachers went before the School Board after the AP cancellation vote to lobby for a reversal, in part because they think AP is much more academically challenging than DE. Perhaps that’s a discussion trustees should have sought out before voting? At any rate, taking away AP is the opposite of what the School Board should be doing — just as it would be wrong to drop programs in trade and career fields for students who plan to enter the workforce or go off to community college after graduating high school. With the county building a $120 million secondary school, it’s a bad look — and a bad direction — to start paring back the high school academic program. Can’t the School Board do any better?

Before anyone replies “but what about the money and teaching resources!”, let’s just remember that this vote came up out of the blue, without much discussion, much in the same way the School Board didn’t have a handle on what was happening with the distribution of dual enrollment classes at Bluestone and Park View. Bad process, bad result. What else would you expect?

This is true for more than the Mecklenburg County School Board, by the way. The State of Virginia went far too long selling the line that students could complete a major portion of college in high school through earning dual enrollment degrees, until the washouts at the higher ed level became too numerous to ignore. The subtext of this story is impossible to ignore: college is really, really expensive, so the incentives to come up with shortcuts are overwhelming. Perhaps a better solution would simply be to straight-up lower the cost of college? Far too many people scoff at the idea of providing free college education at four-year public universities, which is a pretty big issue in the Democratic presidential race. Pie-in-the-sky nonsense, that’s what a lot of people think. They should consider that low-cost college educations were ubiquitous for prior generations, through programs such as the GI Bill and the creation and public support of college systems that charged very little for tuition. (The UC system in California, which includes top-quality schools such as UCLA and Cal-Berkeley, is a prime example.) Instead of messing around with questionable propositions, like purporting to teach college-level material in high school — doesn’t high school exist for a reason? — maybe it might work better to attack the cost issue at the source. In other works, let’s give it up for free college, the crazy idea that actually isn’t.

***

Speaking of crazy, Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols has revealed the art design for the Phoenix, the new mascot of Mecklenburg County High School and Middle School (soon to be an actual thing, God willing.) The Phoenix has come about by popular demand of the kids, who dominated public surveys on the choice of a mascot with pending construction of the countywide secondary school. Naturally, partisans of all things Bluestone Barons and Park View Dragons — the older the better — are not pleased.

Anyway, you can take a gander of the design on our front page. If experience is any guide, opinions of the new mascot will be sharply divided along generational lines, setting Mecklenburg up for a first-rate, real-life OK Boomer battle.

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