The Charlotte-Mecklenburg School system stood out last year when the state released the high school dropout rate for every school district. The dropout rate for CMS increased by 45 percent, from about 1,700 students to more than 2,500. Now, CMS is on the verge of being the only district in the area that requires just 24 courses to graduate. Every other district requires 27 or 28 courses. (View different requirements here) "We're just really trying to give greater options to our students," says CMS Associate Superintendent Ann Clark. She supports the proposal under consideration. CMS staff recommended the policy after a series of seven community forums last spring. "There are fewer credits required to graduate. Essentially what it does is reduce the number of electives. The core requirements are not changing in math, English, social studies. We're just reducing the number of electives." For example, students would no longer be required to take a foreign language. That's in line with state policy, which currently requires students to only take 20 courses. Students entering the 9th grade next year will be required to take 21 courses. It's up to individual school districts to exceed the state's minimum requirements. Most school districts in the Charlotte area require 28 courses; Cabarrus County requires 27. Clark says the 24-course requirement would give CMS students more opportunities. "We know students are looking for different options," she says. Students who plan to attend college would still have to take a foreign language, to meet a school's admission requirements. But Clark says the policy would allow more students to graduate early and enroll in college, study abroad, or maybe complete an internship. CMS board member Tom Tate expects approval of the 24-course minimum. "It's being criticized for not being strong enough, that it's 'dumbing down.' I don't see it that way. Courses aren't changing. What it's going to do is give students better way of tailoring education to their needs." But those needs are largely not being met, according to Richard McElrath. He's a retired teacher who formed an education advocacy group a few years ago called People United for Education. "You're going to lower the graduate requirements, and that's going to increase probably the number of kids who will graduate, but you haven't fixed the real problem," McElrath says. "You're not even attacking it." He worries the 24-course requirement would mask other problems, particularly with elementary schools. "Top has been the top, bottom has been the bottom for so long, and that's the dynamic we need to be working on if we're going to improve education. We've got to have across-the-board elementary school kids who are learning." The CMS board is scheduled to vote on the 24-course proposal tonight after it undergoes a public hearing. In the last year, at least two other school districts went a different direction in lowering graduation requirements. Students in Catawba and Rowan-Salisbury Schools are still expected to pass 28 courses, but some can apply for a 21-course hardship diploma their senior year. Officials with both districts say these diplomas target students on the verge of dropping out because they may be pregnant, or fifth-year seniors, for example.