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  • Writer's pictureKate Hill

Operation Graduation

Society mandates an education that extends kindergarten through 12th grade, as was enforced by The Great Depression; the regulation kept younger men in school and freed up jobs for older men looking to support their families. Society has not since strayed from this framework—but is wavering—as the rigor and standards of modern education have long since been in debate across the country. Author and former New York State teacher John Taylor Gatto wrote in his 2003 essay, Against School, “Do we really need school? I don’t mean education, just forced schooling…” This type of question may be one that MHS seniors are asking themselves as they trudge to find out, “How much longer?” For some seniors, the answer is, “Until the end of the semester.”

MHS has a program, or “schedule” as defined by principal John Ross, that allows students to graduate early, typically by one semester in their senior year. Yet, few seniors take advantage of this option, and the numbers tend to dwindle annually, because not many students know that the option exists. “In many cases, it’s the worst option,” said Ross.

The early graduation process is heavily convoluted. “It's a corporation decision,” said MHS guidance counselor, Ms. Melissa Raffelock.

“There is an actual Indiana Code… that specifies that the state expects kids to be in school through their senior year,” but [state legislators] make some allowances for high-performing students to graduate early,” said Ross, referring to Indiana Code 20-36-5-2. Arguably, the power dynamic of early graduation is similar to the differentiation of power between federal and state government. “I’m not the top of the food chain…” said Ross. “[The state] basically gives each individual school system the right to determine whether they’re going to [allow students to graduate early] or not. So, some school systems…probably don’t even have provisions for early graduation.”

Yet, MHS is one school in the state of Indiana that does allow students to graduate early, making it the ultimate reward from the student perspective, and teachers may use it as an incentive for good behavior in the classroom. Additionally, scholarships, such as the $4,000 Mitch Daniels scholarship, exist exclusively to benefit those in the state of Indiana who are graduating early. However, Ross cautioned students who are seeking out early graduation. “Given the vast amount of AP and dual credit courses [Mishawaka High School] offer(s), why would [students] want to start some place early and pay for the privilege of doing that when [they] could have earned the same credits for free, or for a very reduced cost?” he asked.

As for the potential scholarship opportunities that early graduation provides, “I would argue that in many cases, a high-performing students going to qualify for any number of scholarships…A $4,000 is fine…[Cost wise,] that sounds like one semester of college…[so,] it’s really almost nonsensical to graduate early…” he concluded.

Ross explained, “In many cases, there are two kinds of kids [who] are seeking early graduation—usually, it’s not the high-performing kids… If [students] simply graduate early…in December instead of May, but then [they] don’t do anything, what’s the point of that?

“It’s an outlier circumstance,” Ross classified, explaining that,“If you’re a high-performing student, you’ve got a plan, and you want to have a discussion with your family, with counseling with myself, about what your next steps are, then we can craft a…schedule that suits your needs. But there are still some trade-offs.”

Senior Tanner Parmley is one of those “outliers” who the state considers high-performing. He met all the necessary requirements, made “trade-offs,” and will be completing his high school career at the end of the semester. “For me,” said Parmely,”I'm already older for my class, and I’ve always considered myself a little bit more on the mature side. I want to get a jumpstart on life, so I decided it would be best for me to graduate early and take the next step in my life.

“In my own, personal experience, it was very difficult [to graduate early],” said Parmley, “but I think, from [administrative perspective], they kind of just want to give students the best hand they can at life.”

Hopeful early graduate, Tanner Parmley

He was aware of the connotation associated with those who graduate early, saying, “Early graduation, for a lot of people, is just to get out of high school because they’re lazy and don’t want to finish it out.” But, Parmley emphasized his purposeful intentions for graduating early, “...I’m getting a jumpstart on college. It’s not like I’m taking a gap year or anything…I will be attending Bethel, and my degree will be in ministry leadership.” By pursuing such lifestyle changes rather abruptly, he said, “I’m hoping that my maturity is forced to grow.”

For Parmley, the process was “very difficult.” That’s because when it comes to graduating early, credits alone do not merit qualification. Ross assured that, “There’s a whole host of things that end up becoming obstacles that are difficult to overcome…[and,] “I’m not going to want to have a kid graduate early if they haven’t passed a graduation qualifying exam. If [students] can’t get a good enough SAT score, or an ASVAB score, or some number of those things, [they are] not going to qualify to graduate early anyway,” he made clear.

It has long since been thought that early graduation was concealed for purposes of ensuring the school’s financial stability. Contrary to popular belief, Ross clarified that, “There’s no downside, from the school’s point of view, in terms of having a kid graduate early.” Yet, he did mention, “There are certain financial aspects to how the schools are funded. I’m looking at projections…”

For any student who may be considering early graduation, “There is a form that needs to be filled out ahead of time,” emphasized Ross. “If you’re a junior and you want to be done at the end of your junior year, you’re probably too late. If you want to finish…halfway through your senior year, you’re not too late.” However, he carefully advised, “If you have a severe case of senioritis, that’s not the best reason. If you’re a high-performing kid, take advantage of the fact that you can still be with your friends…”

Early graduation is “not something that can be a last minute decision, because it takes a great deal of planning to meet the state requirements,” summarized Raffelock.

A student's decision to graduate early would initiate a discussion. “If the conversation comes up, [staff] doesn’t bring it up, because our goal is to support [students] academically, and as an early grad, I would agree with Mr. Ross [that students] find that they have to thrive on their own, which is sometimes good for people, and sometimes, it leaves them lost,” said Raffelock, adding that, “…frankly, [Mishawaka High School] has a lot to offer."

Parmley was aware of Mishawaka’s opportunities, but assured that pursuing college ahead of time is the right choice for him. “The college that I’m going to is actually [offered at] a very discounted price. I have taken AP classes here, and I have excelled at AP classes here, but in terms of actually having AP level teachers…The change is very different. At least, from what I’ve heard from my older siblings who have been through college.and who have also taken AP level classes through Mishawaka. While I agree that financially, it is definitely beneficial, I would think that in college, my classes will be more rigorous…When it comes to education, I want to get as much out of it as possible,” he affirmed.

The transitional period between high school and college is difficult for any student to make. The early graduation process is a resource dependent on circumstance. It’s a personal decision, which is why, “I advocate for the individual, [and] I support it, if it is something that is going to help that student move forward. The belief comes from the fact that my goal is to get everybody to where they want to be when they leave. I want [students] to graduate ready for whatever they plan to do next,” said Raffelock. But, Ross emphasized the potential determinants of the decision to graduate early, “What a kid, in many cases, is thinking [about] isn’t their next step. It’s about being done with this step. High school is not the end of all things. High school is really the beginning of your ability to [take] the next steps. In my experience, the vast majority of kids are not well served by graduating early.”

Students who want to graduate early are welcome to initiate the discussion, however, it is “not encouraged” by MHS administrators because, “I’m not trying to encourage senioritis…[Students] are supposed to be in school,” said Ross.

“It’s a big ask to give up your senior year…Really, you only have this moment in time,” said Raffelock. Parmley reflected, “I’m going to miss the friendships. I’m going to have a hard time seeing my friends having fun because I know that it could have been me, but on the flipside of that, I’m excited to go to Fort Wayne, make new friends, and make new memories that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to make [at Mishawaka High School].

Fear of missing out, or FOMO, is real, just as real as senioritis. Raffelock cleared up a common misconception for Parmley and other early graduation hopefuls. She said, “Early graduation does not take kids out of the cohort, though…Anyone who graduates early is still a member of the class; they get to participate in absolutely every function event, and they get to walk across the stage. Graduating early is saying to the state ‘You have met all requirements that are required to earn [a] diploma.”

For that reason, Raffelock said, “I am so supportive of anybody who wants to graduate early, because the bottom line is they’ve achieved what they need to achieve, but” she cautioned, “have they taken advantage of all that Mishawaka offers? What’s the hurry?”

It comes down to what will best serve the student. “The way [staff] looks at early graduation, or night school, or virtual school, all of those, the way we look at those is, ‘Is this what it’s going to take to help [the student] accomplish what they need to do?...Early graduation is not a pass on academic standards for [a] diploma,” said Raffelock.

***Throughout the writing process of this article, other early graduate students were sought after, but remained low-profile. As Raffelock said, “Right now, the early graduates are not early graduates. There’s still time to trip and fall…Nothing’s in stone yet. When you apply for early graduation, it is not a promise—it’s a goal…An agreed upon goal.” For Parmley and other hopeful early graduates, Let that “goal” be motivation to finish strong.***

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