Washington County joined eight other school districts in the state Tuesday, asking high school students to work harder before graduation.

The district signed on to host the Utah Scholars Program, which encourages the freshman-through-senior group to take a more rigorous course of study preparing them better for college and the workplace.

"It is imperative in today's economy that we encourage students to prepare themselves for both work and college," said David Doty, Utah Scholars Program director. "Data show that a rigorous program of study is the best indicator that a student will enroll in college and successfully graduate on time."

In addition to regular high school graduation requirements, students who opt into the program have to complete four years of English, four years of math, three years of science, 3 1/2 years of social studies and two years of a foreign language. Specific course work includes advanced math, beyond algebra II, biology, chemistry and physics.

"Taking courses in mathematics, science, English, social studies and a foreign language is essential if today's youth want to participate in a competitive and international market," Doty said.

Upon completion of the program, students are recognized among their peers. The accomplishment will appear on academic transcripts and may also help to beef up credentials when applying for federal financial aid, such as the Academic Competitiveness Grant.

Earlier this year, the Utah Scholars Program graduated its first class of more than 150 well-prepared high school students. The pilot program began in Utah in 2006 with a $300,000 federal grant from the Office of Vocational and Adult Education, which aims to get more students into college. Due to its success, legislators appropriated an additional $500,000 this year to keep the program running.

Utah is one of 24 states in the nation that participates in the initiative, while eight school districts take part, including Alpine, Davis, Granite, Jordan, Park City, Provo, Ogden, Salt Lake City and the early college high schools.

"We're in full support of their efforts to inspire students to pursue a more rigorous academic path in high school," said Marshall Topham, assistant superintendent of secondary education for Washington County School District. "We are confident that students who embrace this program will be better prepared for academic success in their post-high school endeavors. We appreciate the partnership with Utah Scholars in this most important cause."

Students in Washington County are already enrolling in classes for the upcoming year and will be recognized this spring. More information about the program can be found online at www.utahscholars.org.

E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com