College & Workforce Readiness

Decision Leaves Iowa Student Diploma-less

By Catherine Gewertz — May 02, 2001 5 min read
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A high-achieving Iowa student who was home-schooled for all but the last two years of her education will not graduate from her local high school, or even participate in commencement, because she lacks enough credits for a diploma, the district school board decided last week.

In a case that has focused attention on the dilemmas faced by families who school their children at home, and the related policy questions for school officials, Hannah Eddy, 17, had asked earlier this year for a diploma from Grinnell High School. She has been enrolled at the school for two years and has maintained an A-minus grade point average.

When officials of Grinnell High and the Grinnell-Newburg district made it clear that no student can receive a diploma without the district’s required 47 credits, Ms. Eddy asked if she could still take part in the graduation ceremony, or receive some other form of recognition for her accomplishments.

In an emotional April 25 meeting, the district school board in Grinnell, 55 miles east of Des Moines, agreed to present Ms. Eddy with a certificate at the school’s May 24 honors ceremony, three days before graduation. It also agreed to investigate ways that home- schooled students in the future could have their work credited toward graduation.

The issue of Ms. Eddy’s receiving a diploma or participating in graduation was never put to a vote because board members made it clear they were not in favor of either option.

For Ms. Eddy, the decision was bittersweet. She lost the chance to be part of a ceremony that has come to have great sentimental value for her, but she may have helped ease the way for other alternatively educated students.

“I know I’m going to be pretty sad when I’m watching graduation, and that I’ll have a hard time keeping myself together then,” she said the morning after the board vote. “But I’m very glad that by talking about this, it might help other kids like me in the future.”

Upholding Standards

Ms. Eddy, an aspiring medical missionary from a devout Baptist family with seven children, was home-schooled until her junior year, when she decided to enroll in school for the advanced science work that Grinnell High could offer.

When she enrolled at the 565- student school two years ago, Ms. Eddy said, she did not feel the need to be included eventually in graduation, only to take the courses she needed for college. But as time passed, and she made close friends, the ceremony took on more meaning for her.

She already has been accepted to Pensacola Christian College in Florida, which she said does not require her to have a diploma.

Ms. Eddy’s mother said she had abided by Iowa’s regulations for home schoolers: notifying the state of the home instruction, submitting annual curriculum descriptions to the local school district, and administering annual evaluations, by standardized test or student portfolio.

In Iowa, each district is empowered to set its own graduation requirements, so Grinnell- Newburg technically had the authority to grant Ms. Eddy a diploma if it chose to do so. But that choice, district leaders said, would have rendered meaningless the standards the district had hammered out.

“To earn a diploma and go through graduation is a reward for a real accomplishment,” said Clement Bodensteiner, the superintendent of the 1,850-student district. “To give people the right to participate in the ceremony or receive a diploma if they haven’t met our requirements greatly lessens the integrity of our high school diploma.”

But even while district officials defend the policy, it can be a wrenching experience to enforce it. Each year, students who fall short by as little as a half-credit have to be denied their diplomas, said David Stoakes, Grinnell High’s principal.

Making exceptions, however, would set a bad precedent, officials decided.

“Personally, I’m disappointed. I wish we could have done something more. She’s a nice person,” Mary Curphy, the school board president, said of Ms. Eddy. “But the way the policy was written, we couldn’t.

“What would happen if we said, ‘You can graduate with 29 credits,’ and next week, a student comes up short and says, ‘You should graduate me?’ We would end up going to court because we showed favoritism.”

Judy Hunter, another school board member, said the decision was painful, but correct. Credits can’t be given when a student is educated at an unaccredited institution, she said.

“We have no way of knowing what a home schooler who comes to our door has been doing,” she said. “Everybody likes standards, but no one likes to apply them. There is some wisdom in what we’ve required.”

Ms. Curphy expressed the hope that the district can devise ways to evaluate the work of students who have been home-schooled so that their at-home studies can be applied toward graduation. It’s an issue that has to be addressed, she said, because an estimated 100 home-schooled students live in the district.

Accreditation Dilemmas

Mike Smith, the president of the Home School Legal Defense Association in Purcellville, Va., said there is little law to guide disputes like the one in Grinnell. Schools must abide by basic principles of fairness outlined in state and federal law, he said, and taking a position that a student’s home-taught work cannot be evaluated for possible credit toward graduation might violate such laws.

Mitchell Stevens, an assistant professor of sociology at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., whose upcoming book on the history of American home schooling will be published this summer, said the home schooling community has responded to such difficulties by creating “alternative certification mechanisms,” such as correspondence programs, through which parents and students can obtain guidelines, curricula, and even diplomas.

But with a population of home-schooled students estimated at 1 million and growing, and with many home schoolers opting at some point to enter public schools, the question of wanting their work accredited by established institutions is one that will arise with increasing frequency, Mr. Stevens predicted.

It would not be difficult, he argued, for school districts to craft assessment methods than enable them to assign credit for home-taught work.

“At some point, the issue becomes a question of institutional will,” he said. “A district has to ask, ‘Are we going to welcome home schoolers and figure out how to get them into our system, or are we going to be skeptical and wary of their contributions?’”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 02, 2001 edition of Education Week as Decision Leaves Iowa Student Diploma-less


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