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Responding to intense pressure from schools and businesses, the state Board of Regents on Tuesday approved measures designed to help vocational high school students learn a trade and still meet New York's tough Regents graduation standards.

Buffalo School Superintendent Marion Canedo said the changes will help vocational students earn high school degrees in four years, rather than having to stay in high school an extra year.

"This is what we wanted," she said. "It's more flexible, and it's more reasonable."

The state's initial school reform plan required career and technical students to meet their vocational requirements, and also to pass five separate Regents exams, in order to graduate.

The changes allow districts and Boards of Cooperative Educational Services to design career and technical courses that also meet the Regents requirements.

For example, a course on avionics (electronics as applied to aeronautics) could meet the math Regents requirement, and a course in business communications could substitute for Regents English.

"This is going to solve a major problem with time," said state Education Commissioner Richard P. Mills. "What the Regents have said here is that there is more than one way to get to those standards."

Vocational education advocates have long pushed for changes in the Regents graduation plan, claiming it forced career and technical students to meet tougher standards than college-bound students and would discourage them from learning trades.

"The Regents, by taking this action, have completely turned that argument around," Mills said.

At the same time, he said, the plan does not water down the Regents graduation requirements, because the state will approve alternative courses only if they are rigorous and relevant.

"I see it as comparable, as an equal path," Mills said. "It in no way is easier."

The changes, which were 18 months in the making, will allow Erie 1 BOCES to offer greater access to strong vocational programs for students
in 19 Erie County school districts, said Donald A. Ogilvie, Erie 1 BOCES district superintendent.

"I think parents should be thrilled," he said. "This means additional opportunities. The goal of high standards and quality is still the same. It's just a modified set of activities."

Schools will not be required to establish alternative courses, but state officials expect the new provisions to be widely used. "The local districts want these choices," said Regents Chancellor Carl T. Hayden.

Richard G. Timbs, district superintendent of BOCES 2, which serves districts in Erie, Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties, said the changes acknowledge that different approaches work for different students.

"Shakespeare and Chaucer aren't the only ways to learn to read and write," said Timbs, who served on the statewide committee that drafted the proposal. "I'm thrilled that the Regents have seen fit to provide flexibility for these youngsters."

The Regents previously provided similar options for academically oriented students by ruling that Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams could be substituted for Regents credit.

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