March 1, 2014

A ‘surprise’ to students, HOPE scholarship to get stricter requirements

By Christopher Smith
christophersmith@daltoncitizen.com

— For seniors graduating from area high schools this year, all they need to do to get HOPE scholarship money from the state is to maintain at least a 3.0 grade point average (GPA) in their core academic classes.

But qualifying for the HOPE scholarship is going to become more difficult.

Students graduating after May 1, 2015, will be required to take at least two classes from among college dual-enrollment, Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB) and advance foreign language classes to specific classes approved by lawmakers (tinyurl.com/GSFClist) if they want to qualify for the scholarship. They must still have the required GPA.

Sophomores who will graduate after May 1, 2016, will be expected to take three advance courses if they want to qualify, while freshmen graduating after May 1, 2017, will have to take four classes.

For Guzo Rodriguez’ mother Ameli, the changes bring “real concerns” as he transitions from Dalton Middle School to Dalton High next year.

“I am worried,” she said. “I’m worried we won’t be able to afford college. I already worry about that and we save where we can, but I think we will need the HOPE. And this makes getting that harder. Four AP classes? That’s a lot.”

Guzo said he’s “not as worried.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m just focused on school. I’ll work hard cause that’s what my mom wants me to do.”



Rewarding ‘top students’? Or ‘a slap

 in the face’?

So what’s the reason for the changes?

Jennifer Phinney, director of school support for Dalton Public Schools, said two factors are likely a tight state budget and lawmakers looking for a “return on investment.”

“Students that don’t already have those advance courses, it’s going to be difficult for them to get (qualified),” Phinney said. “I’m concerned by the quick implementation. It’s a surprise.”

The changes came from House Bill 326 that was voted into law by the Legislature in 2011. Jonathan Stroble, senior manager of external affairs for the Georgia Student Finance Commission — an unelected, governor-appointed board that oversees HOPE distribution, among other scholarships — said the changes won’t be “significant” and will impact roughly 5 percent of students.

“The idea was that ... we were fine-tuning the requirements to make sure students are prepared for college,” he said.

Stroble said much of the law that was passed seeks to keep the HOPE program from “essentially running dry” financially and creates a more uniform reporting system for the 180 school districts in the state. The new HOPE qualifications don’t have “a cost savings” aspect, he added.

“There’s really no savings it (the new qualifications) will create since it only impacts a small percentage,” he said, adding that the increased rigor isn’t intended to “weed out” students but to “reward top students,” making sure those students continue to take challenging courses.

“It feels like they’re forcing my hand,” Northwest Whitfield High School sophomore Jessica Reynolds said.

“I have to do what now?” she asked, raising her eyebrows when explained the changes. “I’ve never had to take an AP class before. I make good grades, like really good, but I didn’t see any need to take extra-hard classes like that. Yeah, my counselor said I should take some AP classes, but I never saw the point. I guess I do now. It just seems pushy.”

Her friend David Smith, also a sophomore, was equally shocked, but understands the logic behind the changes.

“I can see why it feels like a slap in the face when you try your best to make good grades as it is,” he said. “At the same time, part of life is working hard. It’s not unreasonable to demand more out of people. A lot of people are just lazy and they don’t like to work hard when someone tells them to.”



Stroble: All schools

have options

Some schools don’t offer AP or IB classes, particularly south of Atlanta, Phinney said, causing a “disadvantage.”

“We’re very blessed in our area,” she said. “That’s not always the way in the rest of the state.”

One option for students who want HOPE qualifying classes is the Georgia Virtual School, a free online education program that offers advance courses and is accessible by all public school students. But that could still pose problems, Phinney said.

“For everyone, that’s not always the best way to access information,” she said. “I don’t know if I would want to take AP Physics virtually. Maybe it would be OK, but I don’t know.”

Stroble noted that the list of approved “harder” courses — not just AP or IB — are offered at all schools in the state and include classes like calculus, genetics and physics.

“We don’t want to set up any schools for failure,” he said. “They might not have all the options for IB or AP ... but they do have classes (on the list).”

Regardless of which classes they take, students should “get a plan now” if they’re banking on HOPE scholarship money to help pay for college, Phinney said.

“It’s going to require careful planning,” she said. “If you wait ... you’re not setting yourself up for success.”