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Non-graduates take stage too

They wear the caps and gowns. They march to Pomp and Circumstance. And they bask in the applause and congratulations along with their high school classmates.

But many of the seniors who take part in graduation ceremonies in Hillsborough County have not completed the requirements for a diploma.

Many are considered "provisional graduates" _ students who are a few credits short of graduation. Years ago, the Hillsborough School Board decided to allow near-graduates to participate in ceremonies with the understanding they would make up the necessary credits in summer school before receiving a diploma.

But some school officials say the system has gotten out of hand.

At one ceremony this year, one of every three graduates was a provisional graduate. At other schools, it was as many as one of every five.

And opponents of the system say many of those students are not completing their work during summer school.

"It's the only situation I can think of where someone is honored and congratulated for something they have not done," said Leto High School English teacher Marlene Smitson. "It's become a way of life for students. Kids always find a way to manipulate the system."

The Hillsborough School Board approved the procedure as a solution to a problem they have experienced at the end of every school year. Invariably, school officials and board members get last-minute telephone calls from desperate parents alarmed that their son or daughter could not take part in the once-in-a-lifetime graduation ceremony.

Hillsborough school assistant superintendent Pete Davidsen explained that students and families make plans for graduation. Relatives fly in from out of town. Parties are planned.

"And then we pull them from the line on that last day," Davidsen said. "It's a traumatic experience."

Pasco County has a similar policy, according to Bill Alexander, director of student services. But to guard against obvious abuses, he said the policy has been fine-tuned so that only students who are two or three credits shy of a diploma can participate in the ceremony with their classmates.

In Pinellas County, there is no provision for near-graduates.

"Our policy is if you don't meet the requirements, you don't graduate," said Pinellas schools spokeswoman Marilyn Brown. "Even if your name is in the program and even if your relatives flew in from out of town."

Some Hillsborough school officials believe that might be the way to go. Next year, Leto High School will be the first high school in Hillsborough to forbid non-graduates from participating in commencement exercises.

As part of Leto's school improvement plan, officials asked the Hillsborough School Board to allow the school to eliminate the provisional graduate system on a trial basis for one year.

In a presentation to the School Board, Smitson and Leto principal Virginia Massey argued that eliminating the provisional graduate category would motivate borderline students to get their work done. They assured board members that students are warned repeatedly when they are in danger of not accumulating enough credits.

Perhaps their most convincing argument was the numbers they presented. At the end of the 1991-92 school year, there were 733 provisional graduates among Hillsborough County's 14 high schools. Of those, 535 went on to complete their work during summer school.

That means more than one in four provisional graduates did not complete the requirements for graduation _ even after they graduated.

Smitson noted that nearly one out of five seniors who walked across the graduation stage at Leto earlier this month was a provisional graduate. That was a 9 percent increase over the previous year.

The numbers were even higher at Jefferson High, she said, where one in three was a provisional graduate.

The Hillsborough School Board agreed to allow Leto High to eliminate the provisional graduate category for a year.

"It's going to happen again," warned Hillsborough School Superintendent Walter Sickles. "People will call looking for exceptions."

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