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Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2008 | Remington Gladney spent almost two years out of school before Garfield High School offered him an unexpected path to his diploma. He could graduate at the alternative Garfield school with far fewer credits than at San Diego High, the school he was “kicked out of,” if he took a class at the community college and met the minimum graduation requirements set by California.

It seemed too good to be true. Gladney searched for an “asterisk or fine print” on the alternative “joint diploma” his counselor showed him, just to be sure that it was real.

“It looked like a high school diploma to me,” said Gladney, now a senior at Garfield.

Without that option, Gladney said, he would have stayed out of school. Similar tales from teens daunted by the ordinary graduation requirements have San Diego Unified considering whether offering teens two or three or even four diplomas might be better than one. One would be harder to get than the current diploma; one would be easier. And the joint diploma Gladney is now seeking would be publicized to more students.

Superintendent Terry Grier believes offering different diplomas could help curb the dropout rate, one of his primary goals for his first year at San Diego Unified, and reward kids who go beyond the minimum requirements. Existing graduation requirements at San Diego Unified are tougher than the requirements set by the state. Grier said that offering another diploma, pegged to the lower California standard, could help more teens graduate who might be discouraged by the higher bar set by San Diego Unified. That, in turn, could open more doors to higher education or job opportunities.

“I don’t want to water it down,” Grier said. “But if a student has met state requirements, “why would we say no to that?”

Grier has made no official proposals, nor has the school board discussed the issue. But allowing teens to exit school with fewer credits and offering alternative diplomas could be a sensitive move, raising fears that a diploma could be diluted — the same fears that Grier seeks to dispel. It goes to the heart of a question that educators nationwide are grappling with as the workplace evolves and U.S. youth face stiffer competition from peers in China, India and elsewhere: Where should high schools set the bar?

Like San Diego Unified, many school districts already set the bar far higher than California. Advocates for more rigorous curricula complain that the minimum California requirements leave graduates unprepared for college or the modern workplace. Some have pushed for school districts to make graduation requirements as steep as the minimum requirements to apply to colleges in the California State and University of California systems, girding students for global competition and a tougher economy.

“Sure, not all kids are going to college,” said Russlynn Ali, director of the Oakland-based Education Trust West, a nonprofit aimed at closing the achievement gap between students of different races and means. “But shouldn’t we prepare them as if they were, given the demands of the new 21st century workforce?”

Offering multiple diplomas also raises worries that schools could prematurely push students onto different paths, deciding who is bound for college and who will scrape by with the minimum to graduate. It is a problem that has surfaced in classes for San Diego Unified students with disabilities, who have the option of a certificate that falls short of a diploma. Teens such as Gladney say that problem already exists, with or without more options to graduate. But proponents of tougher standards are wary of providing an easier path out of high school that could leave students unprepared for college or a career.

“If a college-ready diploma is optional, who is likely to try and get it?” asked Matt Gandal, executive vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based American Diploma Project Network, which pushes states to make graduation requirements match the needs of colleges and the market. “What’s the incentive if they have no reason?”

Grier argued that if a student has more ways to get a high school diploma, it might dissuade the student from dropping out, just as the joint diploma did for Gladney. Reducing dropouts has been a passion for Grier, who could lose his job or a financial bonus if he fails to increase the graduation rate by 2.5 percent this school year. He has introduced credit recovery classes led by “graduation coaches,” where students make up failed or missed classes independently, and a virtual high school where students take online classes, as two ways to boost graduation rates. His supporters agree that students need more options.

“Why would we hold 100 percent of the kids to a University of California standard when 90 percent of the kids won’t go there?” asked parent Matt Spathas, who helped plan the virtual high school and has served on several San Diego Unified committees.

San Diego Unified schools already offer a regular diploma that requires 44 semester-long credits, a higher standard than that set by the California Education Code, which mandates only 13 year-long classes — the equivalent of 26 semesters — to graduate. Two alternative high schools, Garfield and Twain, and the adult education program offer a “joint diploma” that matches the minimum state requirements and also exposes students to community college classes. All students must also pass the high school exit exam, present a senior exhibition, make a minimum 2.0 grade point average, and show that they are computer-literate.

Grier also wants to offer an Advanced Placement diploma for students who meet the ordinary requirements and also get passing scores on at least five Advanced Placement exams. High school students can get college credit for taking the tests, which are meant to be tougher than ordinary high school exams. And he wants to add a state diploma for students who meet California requirements but not the higher San Diego Unified bar. Seventy-five students fell in that category last year, Grier said. Schools are still determining what happened to them and where they went, said Deputy Superintendent Chuck Morris.

“Is it fair if these kids have met all the requirements from the state Board of Education?” Grier asked. “What happens if they drop out?”

Many students are unaware of the joint diploma that Gladney is pursuing. Other students at Garfield said the counselors who were supposed to guide them towards graduation at other schools knew little about the joint diploma or the alternative schools that offer it. Such counselors routinely split their time between as many as 500 students at large, comprehensive high schools. Senior Jocelyn Hernandez said she talked to her academic counselor just twice in three years at another school.

“The counselors were only there when you were in trouble,” said Edgar Rodriguez, a Garfield senior who bounced from school to school in San Diego Unified. “I had to keep track of my own credits.”

Approximately 7 percent of San Diego Unified graduates last year got the joint diploma, said Chief High School Improvement Officer Nellie Meyer. It is usually offered only to older students such as Gladney who are so far behind that a regular diploma seems impossible. It is a common option at alternative high schools such as Garfield and Twain, which are tailored for students who struggled in large, traditional schools. Roughly 75 percent of her students are earning the joint diploma, said Principal Jolie Pickett, who called it “the next best option.”

University standards are a distant aim for students who are waffling on whether to stay in school, juggling other worries and distractions, Pickett said. Fifteen percent of her students are pregnant or parenting, and many lagged behind because of social or emotional problems that spilled into the classroom, not because they were academically weak. For those who would otherwise have dropped out, the joint diploma can be a safety net.

Yet Pickett said San Diego Unified should be cautious when offering an easier path to graduation. She views the joint diploma as a last resort for older teens, not an option for incoming students who are struggling, and worries about “eking kids through” with just the state requirements.

“Kids are kids and they’ll take the path of least resistance,” Pickett said.

Staffers at other large school districts in San Diego County, such as Grossmont and Sweetwater, said they offer only one diploma. Many have pushed for that diploma to match the University of California requirements as closely as possible. San Marcos Unified School District has touted the number of its classes that count for credit on the University of California application, and Sweetwater Union High School District spokeswoman Lillian Leopold said a college-ready curriculum is already in place.

“We don’t have a huge dropout rate and we want as many students as possible to be college ready when they graduate,” said Nancy Peterson, director of secondary curriculum in San Marcos.

Yet gaps remain. Both the California State and University of California systems require applicants to take two years of a foreign language and a year of art, drama, music or dance, yet all seven districts surveyed by voiceofsandiego.org — San Diego, Sweetwater, Poway, Grossmont, Vista, Oceanside and San Marcos — set lower requirements for those subjects or combined them. San Marcos and Poway graduates need only two years of mathematics, yet both the college systems require at least three, including one that covers the topics in advanced algebra.

That gulf means that those San Diego County schools are allowing students to graduate who cannot enter the state’s four-year public universities, said Jim Lanich, president of California Business for Education Excellence, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of California businesses to boost student achievement. Lanich said such graduates might find their way to community colleges, which scramble to help the high numbers of students who need remedial classes, or to jobs in fast food restaurants or convenience stores.

“Those professions often are not rooted with a living wage or a career ladder to promote them out of that wage,” Lanich said. “It’s not acceptable to set up kids with no future.”

His words were echoed by Grier, who argued that a diploma is better than dropping out for students who have met the California requirements but not the San Diego Unified standard.

“What kind of future are they going to have?” Grier asked.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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