Wichita increases credits to graduate

Wichita school board members voted unanimously Monday to increase the district's graduation requirements from 22 to 23 credits.

The extra credit will include one semester of financial literacy and a semester of career or technical education. The change will take effect with the current sophomore class.

The move marks the first increase in graduation requirements since 1984, when the district raised its required credits from 20 to 22.

Currently in Wichita, a diploma requires at least four units in language arts, three in social studies, three in math, three in science, one in physical education, one in fine arts and seven electives.

Classes students can take to fulfill the career and technical education elective include business, marketing, engineering, automotive, woodworking, early childhood education, food science, graphic arts and health science.

Board member Kevass Harding said he strongly supports the new financial literacy requirement, which he said was overdue.

"A lot of adults don't understand what a budget is or how to balance their checkbook, so I am excited . . . that our young people will get this," he said.

Denise Wren, assistant superintendent for high schools, said the new credits answer a call from parents, educators and the business community to teach real-world financial skills.

A committee of teachers and local businesspeople developed a financial-literacy course that is being tested this year at four Wichita high schools. Juniors and seniors taking the course learn about financial planning, banking, decision- making, goal-setting and consumer choices.

Wren said the new course will be activity-driven, not textbook-based. Depending on the school, it will be offered through business, family and consumer science or social studies departments.

Board member Lynn Rogers said he hopes schools are careful about who they choose to teach the course.

"There are bankers I wouldn't want teaching this course, and I am a banker," he said. "What are we going to do to make sure they're the right teacher, a trained teacher?"

Wren said she has the same concern. "It has to be a teacher who's excited about it. . . . That's something I made very clear to the principals."

Board president Connie Dietz said she heard from a parent of a student in the International Baccalaureate program at East High who said it would be difficult for his child to add a semester of career or technical education and financial literacy to an already overloaded schedule.

"Absolutely, we will work with them, just like we do now, because we know their schedule is full," Wren said. "It is a challenge. But I'm also passionate that those students need financial literacy as much as all our students."

In 2002, the Kansas Legislature passed a law saying financial literacy should be taught at every grade level where applicable. Kindergartners and first-graders may count coins, for instance; older students might learn about budgeting or how interest works.

But in a 2008 survey by the state Department of Education, most teachers said they did not teach financial literacy. A proposal last year to make it a graduation requirement stalled in the state Legislature, partly over budget concerns.

Wren said Monday that federal funding and a $25,000 grant from the Kansas Securities Commission "will be more than enough" to fund the new requirement.

"From the beginning, we knew that we needed to do this with no additional funding," she said.

In other business Monday, Superintendent John Allison responded to recent questions from board members and others about the state of the district's $370 million bond issue.

School leaders voted last month to "pause and study" the bond issue because of budget concerns, a move that could alter or delay new schools, athletic facilities and other projects.

Allison said $320 million in bonds already have been sold to take advantage of low interest rates or bond instruments available through federal stimulus programs.

Only $177 million of those bonds have been spent or are "obligated for construction contracts," Allison said.

About $143 million of bonds are sold but "currently unencumbered," he said. But redeeming those bonds could be impossible or extremely costly.

About $52 million in general obligation bonds could not be redeemed until their 2018 call date. Another $91 million in Build America Bonds could be redeemed with a penalty of about $21 million, Allison said.

The final $50 million in funds for the bond, which voters approved in 2008, have yet to be sold. Those bonds could be "delayed indefinitely," Allison said.