Monday, May 17, 2004

Diploma being redefined


Variations developed to reflect extra effort

By Karen Gutierrez
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The high-school diploma is losing its luster.

Once considered a good sign - of drive, responsibility, college readiness - it has come to mean too little, some say. This year, a Northern Kentucky company even dropped the diploma as a requirement for hire.

"It tells me they can read and write and do some of the intricacies of the job, but it doesn't tell me about ultimate success in the job," says Sheila Greco, human resources manager for Cascade Boxboard, a high-tech printing company in Hebron.

As 20,000 seniors in Greater Cincinnati prepare to graduate this month and next, business leaders and educators are calling for an upgrade of this educational milestone. Nationally and in this region, some are working with high schools to increase expectations for students. Others are developing alternative ways to measure their work ethic.

Among the efforts:

• About 1,100 seniors this year received a "work-ethic diploma" from the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. Teachers certified that the students met certain criteria, including punctuality, teamwork, attendance and good behavior. The seniors received letters of recommendation from Tom Gill Chevrolet, which sponsored the project.

• Kentucky is one of five pilot states for the American Diploma Project, a national effort to raise expectations for all high-school students. Thousands of businesses and colleges across the country have given their input, describing specific assignments that graduates must be prepared to tackle. Course content in Kentucky high schools may change as a result. (For details, go to www.achieve.org) .

• Kentucky and Indiana are among 13 states involved in the State Scholars Initiative. Beginning in middle school, business and college representatives will urge students to pursue rigorous coursework - above the minimum requirements - through their senior years. Such students will receive a special credential upon graduation.

Universities and businesses are equally concerned about the meaning of the regular diploma, says Barbara Stonewater, executive director of the Council of Partners. Her agency serves as a liaison between universities and K-12 schools in Northern Kentucky.

On the college side, about 35 percent of incoming freshmen nationwide must take at least one remedial course covering material they should have learned in high school. They get no credit for the work and are more likely to drop out of college eventually.

Meanwhile, in the business world, companies are seeking people who can work in teams, solve problems, communicate well and sometimes write proposals - even if they haven't attended college.

This year, Fidelity Investments in Covington will start offering on-site courses in business writing, public speaking and presentation-making to employees in its customer-service call center. Some of them need a brush-up.

"Kids today are very visual. They use computers, they like video games, they're very fast-paced. Sitting down and writing a 10-page report is something they don't do enough of," Site Manager Paul Smith says.

At Citigroup, another customer-service center located in Florence, one of every three job applicants cannot pass a pre-hire test of basic skills, and some are recent high-school graduates, says Johnna Fasold, vice president for communications.

Those who do pass don't always have a grasp on reality.

"For example, if it snows one day they might call in and say, 'Is there a snow day?'" Fasold says. "This is not high school. This is a business."

Work habits also are a concern at Cascade Boxboard, which does high-tech printing on cereal boxes and other cardboard packaging. Its jobs pay from $11.85 to $19 an hour.

Greco, the human resources manager, has grappled with everything from error-riddled resumes to poor attendance.

Completing an in-house training program is essential to success at Boxboard. Because high-school graduates have been no more likely than dropouts to stick with it, Greco stopped requiring a diploma this year.

"I had been using it as a gauge that they had the drive to complete something," Greco says. "That's not necessarily true."

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E-mail kgutierrez@enquirer.com




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