There was a time when the high school senior year in Rock Hill could be a breeze.
If students were on pace to graduate, they could come to school late or leave early.
Following a nationwide push to better prepare students for college and careers, many schools - including those in Rock Hill, Fort Mill and York - began requiring seniors to keep a full schedule.
But now, thanks to a budget crunch, those breezier days are coming back.
Seniors at Rock Hill's three high schools can drop two elective courses next school year as long as they will still have the 24 credits to graduate and have their parents' OK.
If enough students drop courses, the district could save money by eliminating a corresponding number of teaching positions.
The change is part of Superintendent Lynn Moody's plan to cut $6.7 million out of an anticipated $122 million budget for 2011-2012.
Fort Mill's two high schools also are scaling back senior course load requirements.
It's a strategy that a growing number of schools appear to be adopting, said Scott Warren, director of state initiatives for the Southern Regional Education Board.
School officials say they have little choice, given the tough financial times they face.
But some - including those same officials - worry it will undo years of cultivating a culture of rigor and ultimately leave students ill prepared to succeed in college or work.
"It's a move backward for education," Moody said. "When you know what it can be, it's hard to go backward. But it's real. We're really having to do this.
"It's just a hard pill to swallow."
Local students have yet to embrace the opportunity to drop courses.
Very few have asked to do so, said Judy Mobley, Rock Hill schools' director of secondary education, who sent a letter to families on April 5 informing them of the change.
"How is that supposed to be beneficial for kids?" said Dondre Lockhart, a Northwestern High senior. "It's good to take a full load, because in college you have to take a full load. It prepares you.
"At first, some students might be overjoyed, but then they'll realize they really need the two extra electives."
The decision to allow elective drops follows years of educators' encouraging students to make the most of their senior year. Load up, they say, even if you have the 24 credits that South Carolina requires for graduation.
Mobley still thinks students should "explore something while it's free, because in college it's going to cost money."
Colleges and universities encourage full schedules.
Princeton University advises students to "maintain a full academic course load for your senior year of high school."
Research by the Southern Regional Education Board found that "the rigor and quality of the senior year has a very direct link to success in college and work," Warren said.
Warren wants schools to take a more thoughtful approach.
"We realize you are in dire financial times," he said. "But that method should be the last choice, not the first.
"Rather than just saying, 'Take a period off,' find some way of making it a meaningful experience."
He suggests creating senior projects that students can work on with a volunteer mentor or a business that partners with the school. That way, teaching positions can still be cut, but students won't miss out on learning.
Also, Warren said, expand enrollment opportunities for advanced placement, International Baccalaureate and dual-credit courses. Students still can drop electives, but instead of skipping a class, they get a chance to earn college credit.
Warren also worries the change could lead to more students dropping out of high school. If schools aren't careful when cutting elective teachers' jobs, he said, they could eliminate programs altogether.
"There are a lot of kids who come to school because of band and fine arts programs and technical courses," he said. "We've put so much emphasis on core academics that we've pushed some kids out the door, because we're eliminating the courses they come to school for."
Rock Hill seniors now must take eight courses - four each semester. In Fort Mill, seniors must take at least seven courses.
Both districts are dropping the minimum to six courses. Officials said students are still encouraged to enroll in as many classes as they can.
York Comprehensive High requires seniors to enroll in eight courses and the school district is not changing that, Superintendent Vernon Prosser said.
Clover High seniors can take fewer than eight courses as long as they meet graduation requirements, Clover schools spokeswoman Michelle Grose said.
In Fort Mill, the driving factor for the change was crammed classrooms, assistant superintendent Marty McGinn said.
"Because of our inability to add staff as we've grown ... some of our elective offerings are getting packed," she said. "Seniors were having to go into some level-one classes they didn't even want.
"We still encourage eight (courses). We want students to take eight."
For Rock Hill students hoping to show up late or leave early next school year, dropping electives is a gamble.
That's because Moody's plan includes bringing back study hall, a period during the day when students are expected to work on assignments from other classes.
Therefore, a student who drops an elective that was scheduled in the middle of the day could end up in study hall.
"No student will be able to request the schedule be rearranged for preference," Mobley wrote in her letter to parents. "Each student assigned to study hall will be required to attend that study hall daily."
It's not clear how much money the change will save.
If only a few students drop courses, Moody said, "we're going to have a more difficult time eliminating teaching positions. I don't know how we'll handle that yet."