Edi Aguero is proud and a "little bit nervous" to be the first in his family going to college. Next week, he also will be one of the first students to graduate from Canyons School District with an "advanced" designation on his diploma.
"You have to take rigorous courses," said Aguero, a 2011 graduate of Hillcrest High in Midvale. "Now, I look back and I say, 'That was a good thing.' It's prepared me to attend college."
A year ago, Canyons approved differentiated diplomas students can earn a standard, advanced or honors diploma with the goal of beefing up students' preparation for higher education and careers. And this month, the district is awarding honors and advanced diplomas for the first time.
The response has been huge: 60 percent of 2011 graduates are taking home a certificate marked advanced or honors. That's 1,356 students.
"People were wondering, is it just going to be the cream of the crop who get these diplomas? If so, we've got a lot of cream," said Canyons spokeswoman Jennifer Toomer-Cook. "We designed them to be within reach of all students. â¦ We would like all our students to be career- and college-ready by this standard."
Canyons requires all students to earn 27 credits to graduate, three more credits than the state minimum of 24. To earn an advanced diploma, students must study a world language for two years, complete at least two lab-based science courses and take college-prep English. They must study math through Algebra II, but that is also a state requirement. Honors diplomas are awarded to students who meet the advanced standards and score high enough on the ACT to meet college-readiness benchmarks. About 600 students earned the honors diploma.
William Sederburg, Utah's commissioner of higher education, said he hopes other school districts adopt advanced and honors diplomas.
"To do this really requires a positive use of the senior year in high school. That keeps students fresh for their freshman year in college," Sederburg said. "Right now, we have over 50 percent of our college students, at some point, needing a remedial class [in math or English]. â¦ Canyons is leading the state in raising the standards."
In two years, Ogden School District plans to roll out an honors diploma, which will require two years of a foreign language, math through pre-calculus and six honors courses all with a grade of B or better.
Provo School District is interested in "exploring" differentiated diplomas but has not yet formally done so, said Superintendent Randall Merrill.
"It's a worthy discussion to try to raise the bar for students [and] encourage them to do better and be serious about their high school education," Merrill said. "We're just trying to get away from the stick and move more toward the carrot."
Aguero learned about the advanced diploma in time to plan for his senior year. He took physics and a concurrent enrollment Algebra class. In the fall, he plans to attend Salt Lake Community College. After two years, he would like to move on to the University of Utah and study to be a high school teacher.
Toomer-Cook expects in the future, the rate of advanced and honors diplomas will grow as students are able to plan ahead starting with ninth grade. In fall 2013, ninth-graders will be moved into Canyons high schools with the opening of a new high school in Draper. This year, Canyons started offering a free ACT to 11th graders given during the school day so students don't skip the college-entrance exam because of the cost or time commitment.
Yasmin Farahani, a Brighton High senior who earned the advanced diploma, thinks "everyone" should go for it. She is attending Weber State University and hopes to become a doctor.
"It's a great thing to have when you apply to colleges," she said. "It just shows how hard you worked and you deserved it. â¦ It's not that hard to achieve if you just try."
Advanced • Students must study a foreign language for two years, take two lab-based science courses and complete a college-prep English class in 12th grade.
Honors • Complete the requirements for an advanced diploma plus score at college-ready benchmarks or higher on the ACT (English, 18; reading, 21; math, 22; science, 24).