Students at Marlin High School in Texas were celebrating the end of classes on Wednesday — and preparing for graduation later in the week — when the school district announced a stunning change of plans: Graduation would be postponed until sometime in June.
Of 33 seniors in the school's traditional program, only five met the requirements to get a diploma, Marlin ISD Superintendent Darryl Henson said, citing an initial internal audit of attendance, grades and credits that started last week. (The district's audit did not include seniors in the school's alternative education program, he said.)
School officials worked with students over the weekend and this week to help an additional 12 students resolve missing credits and other issues as of Wednesday evening, Henson said. But the district opted to call off the ceremony until more than those 17 students can graduate.
Students and parents air their frustrations
"It's emotional" for all of the students affected, one parent said, at a meeting with administrators held on Wednesday evening in the school auditorium. "They get their hopes up: 'I'm graduating next week! I'm at Six Flags!'" she added, referring to a senior trip the previous Friday.
Other parents spoke about their families' confusion and disappointment — including at least one instance where relatives were flying in from Mexico to see their grandchild get their diploma. Some said the setback came after their students had made up classes in summer school.
"The support was there" for students from teachers, said Jesse Bustamante, Marlin's director of human resources who also taught at the high school this year.
But students at the meeting vehemently disagreed, airing their frustrations over a litany of issues. They called out teachers who, the students said, were frequently absent. They also said administrators delayed telling students about their remaining class-hour credits, only to relay different numbers later.
One student said that when she was told she needed to do "credit recovery" for an online class earlier this year, it took three months — and repeated email requests — for the school to make the class available to her.
School district cites state standards
William Ealy, the school's dean of instruction, said the school attempted to warn parents that their senior students weren't on track to finish on time, holding an open meeting, calling parents, mailing a notice and offering to host meetings.
"Let this be a lesson learned for all," superintendent Henson said via Twitter. "As we continue to go through our annual graduation audit, it's our obligation to ensure that all students have met all requirements."
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"Students in Marlin ISD will be held to the same high standard as any other student in Texas," he added.
The school district announced the abrupt change in plans via Facebook, igniting a spirited debate in the community and online about how the school reached this point — parents dispute that the school made adequate efforts to warn them — and whether the delay is fair to students who fulfilled all their obligations and were ready to graduate.
Marlin is a small town southeast of Waco, near the Brazos River. The most recent Texas Schools report card assigned Marlin High School a "B" rating — an assessment based on how it performs compared to other schools with student populations in similar economic conditions. The report said nearly 99% of Marlin High's 229 listed students are economically disadvantaged.
As he absorbed criticisms and promised improvements at Wednesday's meeting, Henson apologized to parents. He also said it's important to support all of the school's students, and its teachers.
"We will be confident educators in this district," Henson said, "because we have to come from so far behind."
Marlin schools will see changes next year
The school and others in the Marlin district will convert to a four-day school schedule next year, under a plan adopted last month. Nikisha Edwards, the district's chief academic officer, said the change should reduce absentee rates.
The district also hopes the four-day week will make it easier to attract and retain high-quality teachers. Under the plan, students will attend class Monday through Thursday of most weeks. But they'll also go to school on the first Friday of every month, and every Friday in three months: August, January and May.
Four-day schedules have been a growing trend in public education, particularly for rural and small districts coping with budget constraints, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Marlin High is also looking to hire new teachers, advertising starting salaries at $50,798 and commuter incentives up to $1,500, along with other incentives.