Scheduling and Graduation Requirements

Owen Smith

Editor’s Note: Owen Smith is a current junior at Johnston High School. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. 

To whom it may concern:

Eight periods.

One-hundred eighty days.

How will you spend them?

During the time freshman, sophomores, and juniors schedule their classes for the upcoming year, the stress in the air is palpable. For some, the process is simple—pick the requirements and call it a day, but for many, choosing classes quickly devolves into a prioritization of their life. Students feel forced to answer big questions about their future, which they may not feel ready for. Despite the anxiety of choosing their futures, the stress students experience has nothing to do the process of scheduling, but rather the constraints of what they can fit in their schedule.

To graduate from Johnston High School, 24 credits are required. I know of no person, under normal circumstances, who has ever had an issue getting to the minimum number of credits. However, there are certainly students who wish to take a variety of classes but can’t due to classes they are forced to take. It is my firm belief students should never have to decide between mandated classes and the classes they enjoy, because learning is most effective when students actually enjoy the content. The district must change to allow students to take all their desired classes and still comply with their requirements. To do this, they can either remove requirements or make required classes enjoyable.

To understand what we are specifically required to take and when, we must dive into the “9th-12th Grade Course Selection Handbook 2019-2020”, where the classes offered at JHS are divided by subject. In the ‘core’ areas of math, science, social studies, and English, notes, charts, and suggested ways to progress through requirements try to guide you through your four-year JHS career. Some charts are helpful, and some are not. The math flowchart is a mess and very hard to follow, but I digress. The book itself is a monster, a 96-page long encyclopedia containing everything you can do at Johnston, but looking at it page by page raises some questions. For example: the district, next year, is creating new science classes and redeveloping the curriculum for incoming sophomores. In the new curriculum, students must have a physical science credit, but somehow Physics does not fulfill that requirement. It should be noted Physics, despite not fulfilling any JHS requirement, is noted as “Recommended for College Admission”. Why in the world would a class “Recommended for College Admission” be taken off the required course list? According to Physics teacher John Chai, the current Physics class doesn’t cover all of the NGSS physical science standards required by the Iowa Department of Education.

“There is some overlap in the course topics (physical science has a lot about forces and motion but at a lower level), but Physics also doesn’t cover some of the required standards. This is why the course doesn’t fulfill the requirement. For example, two of the topics in Physical Science (not covered in our Physics) are Energy Transfer…, and Waves”, says Chai.

In this case, the requirement change makes sense. It keeps JHS classes aligned with state requirements, but nevertheless disadvantages students who have a passion in physics but are required to take a different class to graduate. There are other conflicts like this at the high school, like Frameworks classes, which frequently draw the ire of students due to their repetitiveness. But even beyond Frameworks, some English classes simply get counted as elective credits. What is it about Reading the Screen that makes it a Framework, but keeps Debate from being one?

The requirements for core classes in high schools are set forth by Iowa Code, Section 256.7, Subsection 26a., which state “…requirements for all students in school districts and accredited nonpublic schools…include at a minimum satisfactory completion of four years of English and language arts, three years of mathematics, three years of science, and three years of social studies.” Further guidelines in Iowa Code, Section 281, Subsection 12.5(5) list the subject material of accredited classes, which are suppose to make clear which sub-disciplines can be taught for credit. The JCSD then sets specific class requirements for JHS students based on all state requirements, including both the penal code and things like the Iowa Core. These standards limit greatly the kinds of classes students are allowed to take, but don’t misunderstand—the mountains of requirements are supposed to create well-rounded citizens who could specialize in any number of things after their high school careers. I believe, though, that not everyone need be so well-rounded, at least not in terms of courses taken.

I see the benefits of taking 3 years of science, like the above requirement states, but I don’t personally see the benefit of taking 3 specific science classes, especially if students don’t like, don’t care about, and/or won’t use the skills gained from them. If students would like to take Botany and Anatomy as their second and third science classes, I believe they should be able to do so, as opposed to having to sacrifice a class from another area of their schedule, or perhaps the state can scrap requirements as a whole.

If someone is interested in engineering, why can the state, through the school, inadvertently take away potential opportunities from them by making them take required classes they’re not interested in? Not only do state requirements take away from students learning, but they act against the school’s better interests by pitting students against the requirements.

I do not mean any malice to any teacher, but when is the last time you heard the word ‘lively’ and thought of your Health class? What about your Econ? When I talked to Jackie Sapp, the primary Health teacher at JHS, she noted the disadvantages of lumping everyone together in a required class. She advocates strongly for differentiation in required classes, with perhaps a blended health or a health class “going in a different direction and more in-depth” while still preserving constructive peer-to-peer social interaction. She also notes the lack of any health classes beyond the required one, suggesting there should be classes on nursing or diagnostics. Sapp makes a good point. Why aren’t there classes on politics outside the semester of Gov? The same could be said with Econ. Students interested in those areas may be at a disadvantage once they get into their later years of college because they didn’t have the opportunity to properly explore the areas of academics they wanted to. Regardless of anyone’s personal area of study, Sapp argues some classes are truly necessary. About her own class, she said, “People automatically think, ‘Oh it’s just health. I know all I need to know.’ But they don’t. All the data shows young people today have higher rates of depression and mental illness, and they need to learn the skills to recognize and combat those sorts of things.”

The district, without prompting, will likely not make any changes to the course offerings next year. We will be faced with the same old, same old slate of tedious and not-so-tedious (dependent on the person) classes we are all predestined to take. I encourage students, whether they are in the ELP program or not, to send ideas for new, altered, or accelerated classes to Mrs. Sue Cline, the ELP Facilitator, either in her room, 426, the 100s DPA, or at [email protected], or myself at [email protected], because when next year rolls around, and everyone is choosing classes, you’ll think ‘gee, I wish _______ was a class/was offered as an AP.’ Mrs. Cline is not the only ambassador to the administration; asking teachers and students alike might also spark talk of new classes, if people begin to realize there is a common need students have that the school currently does not fulfil. Speak out for change. Without it, scheduling will continue to be either bland and uninteresting or a nightmare to navigate through.

Thank you for your time.