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Three years ago, Fanueli Po'uha wasn't thinking about life after high school.

Bouncing between schools in Arizona and Michigan while weathering several family moves and his parents' divorce, Fanueli had started skipping classes. He friends were a bad influence and he almost landed in the juvenile court system.

But on Tuesday, the 18-year-old Alta High student was one of about 1,380 graduating seniors in the Canyons School District honored for earning a "differentiated diploma." The distinction means Po'uha went above and beyond basic graduation requirements by enrolling in more rigorous coursework that school officials say will make him — and students like him — better prepared for college or the workforce.

The program, started at the district's four high schools two years ago, has more graduates this year than last, said district spokeswoman Jennifer Toomer-Cook.

Sixty-two percent of Canyons' 2,210 seniors will graduate with an honors or advanced diploma, Toomer-Cook said. That's up from 60 percent during the program's debut year, an increase school officials attribute in part to students' becoming better informed about the benefits of more challenging coursework.

Canyons implemented the differentiated diploma program after research and community discussions suggested that high school graduates weren't ready for college or work. Too many were enrolling in remedial courses after arriving at college, Toomer-Cook said. That trend is costly and discouraging for students, she said.

"The board wanted to make sure all students in Canyons were college and career ready. There are certain standards that we know will help them to do that. One of them is to take more rigorous coursework in high school," said Toomer-Cook.

"It doesn't mean it's an automatic entrance into Yale," she said of the district's differentiated diploma program. "But what it does mean is you will have more options available in the future if you take the rigor now. And we think that's a good thing."

The district offers three types of differentiated diplomas: standard, advanced and honors.

A standard diploma means a student has completed traditional graduation requirements set by the Utah State Office of Education and Canyons School District and has earned 24 credits.

An advanced diploma requires a student to complete 27 credits, including the state's required core credits, electives and two credits of world language. Students who earn an advanced diploma also complete more difficult lab-based science classes as well as college-prep English and Algebra 2.

An honors diploma means a student met the requirements of an advanced diploma in addition to earning certain "college readiness" benchmark scores on the ACT college-entrance exam. The benchmark scores are what ACT researchers have determined likely will result in more success in college: an 18 on the ACT in English, 21 in reading, 22 in math and 24 in science.

Fanueli had help from teachers, peers and parents on his journey from almost not graduating to honors student with a goal of one day attending medical school. But mostly, Fanueli realized he had to change if he wanted to find success.

"Three years ago, I just didn't really care if I graduated. I didn't care what happened after high school. It wasn't my top priority," he said. "Compared to now, I know I need to graduate to move on to help me reach my goals in life."

Fanueli arrived at Alta High this fall with a transcript that included a couple of failed classes at previous schools. Even if he successfully completed a full load at Alta during the school year, he would be three credits shy of meeting the requirements to graduate, his school counselor learned.

Fanueli met with Alta High counselor Logan Laszczyk to create a plan. In addition to his regular classes, Fanueli completed several more online to play "catch-up." He decided to amp up the difficulty of his classes, a choice he hopes will pay off down the road.

"My goal generally speaking is to leave this place a better world for my kids," said Fanueli. "To do that, I decided I would try to shoot to become president. It's a high goal. Because of the things I've been through, I'm a firm believer in anything is possible."

Laszczyk said he's confident Fanueli is prepared for life's next steps. What separates students with an honors diploma, he added, is a commitment to go beyond basic requirements.

"That is usually best achieved when a student has supportive parents, a supportive school and caring teachers and faculty. When all of those are combined together, usually you get a student like Fanueli who is not only prepared for graduation day…but for so many opportunities and experiences in the future," said Laszczyk.

While the road to graduation wasn't easy, Fanueli said he's hopeful other students who had a rocky start will realize they too can graduate with honors.

"Their life is their own," he said. "I knew I could do it. I just had to decide to put forth the effort."

Twitter: @mrogers_trib

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