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Students in Calcasieu Parish will soon have access to an alternative graduation model that will allow them to spend an extra year in high school and earn advanced post-secondary credentials.

The pilot, known as Southwest Consortium Extension Academy, is a partnership between the Louisiana Department of Education and the Calcasieu Parish School Board. Set for launch in the 2020-2021 school year, it will provide a debt-free training opportunity for students who have obtained enough credits to graduate high school, but are "not on track to participate in a low-cost, post-secondary college or training program," according to the School Board's December meeting agenda.

Students in the academy will work towards a Regents-recognized associate degree, a pre-apprenticeship or an advanced Industry-Based Credential. Working with Sowela Technical Community College and McNeese State University, students will have hands-on training in welding, pipefitting, automotive, electrical, culinary arts, nursing, criminal justice, business administration, drafting and process technology.

Tony McCardle, CPSB director of career and technical education and college programs, said the opportunity will help students become "fiercely competitive in the high-wage and high-demand workforce."

"Students will experience a deeper dive into courses and develop richer skill sets that will prepare them to propel beyond the high school experience," McCardle said.

The pilot came about as a response to the state's concern with raising graduation rates and lowering drop out rates, John White, state superintendent, said in a news release.

"Now we are compelled to ask what happens to our graduates and whether they risk dropping out of work and the economy even after they graduate from high school," he said. "If this is the case, even with a small number of students, we must rise to meet this new dropout challenge."

Students will be identified based on their inability to earn Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, or TOPS, to fund their post-secondary training. The pilot is expected to serve up to 25 students in the first year.

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