Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2009 | Counselor Frank Zavala tries to break the news to high schoolers gently, but sometimes it’s just too late. There’s no way they can rack up the classes they need to even apply to the University of California system or the California State schools.

“I found myself having to tell kids that college is an option — but for them, their first step is junior college,” said Zavala, who works at Lincoln High in southeastern San Diego.

It happens more often than he wished. Lincoln High has been dogged by a rumor that it is impossible for students to get the classes they need for the California universities. That’s a myth: Teens can tough out intermediate algebra and other necessary classes at Lincoln. But the reality is still worrisome.

While nearly three out of every four classes at Lincoln pass muster with the public universities, only 16 percent of Lincoln graduates have actually earned the grades and the classes they need to apply to the University of California San Diego or other public universities, according to the most recently available data. That means that they cannot even vie for spots in the schools — let alone win spots at selective colleges. They are left to community colleges, out-of-state universities and private schools if they chose higher education.

Lincoln isn’t solely to blame. Nor is it alone among San Diego Unified schools. Because the high school reopened just two years ago, all Lincoln graduates started at other schools, where they may not have completed the classes they needed for college. Across the school district, state data show that while 83 percent of students graduate, only 43 percent make the University of California grade.

Those rates differ dramatically between different schools, from 84 percent at one of the schools-within-a-school at San Diego High and 12 percent at one of the schools within Crawford. Activists say that it is a problem even for kids who say they don’t want to go to college because they give up their opportunities for good. Uninformed students can end up cutting themselves off from college without realizing it.

“I was appalled by how many of my 11th graders last year did not have the classes they needed,” said Precious Jackson, who teaches English and a college readiness class at Lincoln. Soft music played in her classroom Tuesday as seniors brainstormed ideas and began drafting essays for their college applications. “I still hear seniors saying, ‘Does this class count?’”

The gap is even more striking because it only takes a few extra classes and slightly higher grades to be eligible for the California universities once students have met the bar to graduate high school. The California colleges require students to take a specific series and number of classes before being eligible to even apply. They must take two years of the same foreign language, for instance, and three years of math including the topic of advanced algebra. Students must get a grade of C or better in each class.

Zavala said for most students, the difference between graduating and graduating with the classes needed to apply to a California university comes down to just three classes — visual and performing arts, two years of the same foreign language, and an advanced algebra class. It can also depend on their grades. Students can still graduate from high school with Ds as long as their overall average is a C.

The differences might seem trivial, but for many students, just a few classes that don’t make the grade can mean closing the door to the most affordable path to a bachelor’s degree. The American Civil Liberties Union took up the cause as a civil rights issue last year.

“Our future depends on it,” said Sakeenah Shabazz, a sophomore at Lincoln High who told the school board that she and her classmates were being denied an equal path to college and a better life.

The school board agreed. In June it resolved to ensure that every high school student has equal access to the classes needed for the California universities and knows what they are, convening a committee to decide what changes needed to happen to make it work. The changes are supposed to happen next fall.

Yet no one has analyzed why, exactly, students are failing to meet the bar or how it can be fixed. If Lincoln and other high schools already offer so many classes that can burnish a University of California application, why aren’t more students graduating with the academic chops to apply?

Too Few Options or Too Many

Theories crop up from students, educators and activists: Students say they don’t know enough about the requirements, which may stop them from taking simple steps such as taking two years of a foreign language. They complain that counselors with heavy caseloads don’t always give them the right classes. Even parents say the rules are confusing.

Every high school has the courses available, making it possible to meet the standard. And students don’t need to take the eligible classes alone: The necessary courses only take up 30 out of the 44 semesters teens need to graduate, leaving room for welding or ceramics. Activists argue that the problem isn’t that students have too few choices. Rather, they have too many bad ones.

Choosing classes that don’t qualify for the college applications is “a false choice,” said Andrea Guerrero, field and policy director for the regional chapter of the ACLU. “Kids shouldn’t be given the choice of preparing for their future or not.”

Critics of the push towards preparing every teen for the California colleges say that it simply isn’t necessary or desirable for all students. Some may be wealthy enough to apply to private schools; others may not be headed for college at all and might prefer to take other classes. Requiring all students to take foreign languages, for instance, could mean that schools have to cut back on other electives to make room for more sections of Spanish and French.

Student researcher Obaid Khan combed school schedules and found a wide variety of classes that fell short of the University of California bar. Some classes are simply waiting on the green light: Schools must submit classes to the UC system for approval, such as a social justice class for Lincoln freshmen, which is in the running to become an approved elective. Others could be approved for the university system if they were tweaked, such as journalism or web programming.

Other classes are simply unworkable. One example is a math class, Unifying Algebra and Geometry, that will help teens graduate but doesn’t make the grade for the California colleges. It is meant to cover the key concepts in algebra and geometry for students who squeaked by in both courses and would likely struggle in the next level of algebra.

“The only reason you would take that class is to graduate,” said Stephanie Brown, a geometry teacher at Lincoln. If they don’t take another math class on top of it, she said, “You’re ruling out college for them.”

Another stumbling block is grades. While activists are only pushing to make sure all students get to take the necessary classes, colleges won’t count them toward applications unless teens get a C or better in each required class. San Diego Unified lets students pass them with a D, which allows students to graduate without being able to meet the college readiness requirements.

‘Every School Ought to Be Able to Do It’

Some schools are already pushing for every student to meet the college standards. Principal Mildred Phillips oversees the San Diego Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical High School — the Met for short — a tiny school tucked into the Mesa College campus where all students take classes that will allow them to apply to the California universities. Seniors’ photos plaster the wall under a poster that reads “Where Will You Go to College?” splashed with an alphabet soup of academic aspirations — CSU-SM, SDSU, UCLA, UC-Berkeley.

The Met is uncommon in many ways. Students stick with the same advisory teacher for all four years. There are no advanced or remedial classes — only a single track. But in others ways, it is not so unusual. It has almost the exact same percentage of poor children than the school district average, yet state data show that its percentage of students graduating with the classes is higher than that of La Jolla High.

“If the Met can do it, every school ought to be able to do it,” she said.

All students at the Met have to take two years of a foreign language, for instance, because the colleges demand it. All have to take enough electives that pass muster with colleges. Getting a D means you can’t count the class on your college application, so students at the Met have to earn a C or higher or just retake the class from scratch. Teens still have choices: They pick internships in their chosen fields and shop for college classes in everything from mythology to trigonometry. But college readiness is a must.

“Why should they offer options if they’re not going to help you in the future?” said Edleen Montesa, a senior who wants to study child psychology. “What’s the point?”

That is one question left for San Diego Unified as it tries to bring the whole school district in line with the Met. Curbing the number of classes was floated by outgoing Deputy Superintendent Chuck Morris, for instance, and the school board recently shunned adding a class for that reason. But the question of how to get there — and where exactly the problem stems from — is still an open one for the schools.

“There are hurdles that have to be thought about,” said Mike Price, principal of University City High School. “And how they’re going to be crossed.”

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