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Friends told Jessica Valencia that grades didn’t matter during freshman year. So she messed around at La Jolla High, racking up a report card of Ds and Fs. She didn’t realize how bad it was until later.

“You’re on your own,” said Valencia, now a junior at an alternative school called Twain.

There is plenty of school lore about senioritis, but freshmen are actually much more likely to get bad grades than other high schoolers, leaving them scrambling to catch up just a year into high school.

Eleven percent of San Diego Unified freshmen got a D average or less, which means they likely failed at least one class, according to a voiceofsandiego.org analysis of school district data. Half as many sophomores and only a sliver of juniors were in the same boat.

It takes at least a C average to graduate, but according to the VOSD analysis, nearly 31 percent of freshmen were barely at that mark or below it. They might shape up over time — or they might just quit.

Failing freshman year is one of the most powerful predictors of whether a student will eventually drop out, markedly more important than standardized test scores. Studies from Chicago showed that kids with slumping scores who got decent grades in their freshman year were almost twice as likely to graduate as students who got great scores but lousy grades.

Skeptics have traditionally been wary of looking at grades because teachers don’t agree on how to calculate them. Scoring 63 percent on all your assignments earns you a D in one algebra class and an F in another. But some scholars say bad grades are actually the clearest bellwether of problems to come.

“An A is not an A is not an A,” said Christopher Mazzeo, who handles policy for the Consortium on Chicago School Research. “But grades tell you something about what’s going on with the kid. Are they attending school? Are they motivated? A simple academic test isn’t going to measure those things.”

Getting back on track is difficult even after one dismal year in high school, which means freshman year can be a killer. Struggling students have to catch up through summer school, online classes or just retaking courses, something that can become a logistical nightmare if students fail over and over.

San Diego Unified has stepped up its efforts to bail out students who failed lots of classes, adding in online classes, graduation coaches and mentoring for struggling students. But critics say that help for failing students is still haphazard and comes too late. And as budget cuts menace San Diego Unified, whether teens will even be able to make up classes in summertime is up in the air.

Schools might be tempted to just inflate grades to avoid high failure rates. But reformers say there are other, more meaningful ways to reduce Ds and Fs.

Lincoln High tried setting apart its freshmen into a separate center to ease the transition to high school. Yet failure rates are still high there. Other educators have focused on different ways of grading, such as forcing students to complete missing work instead of giving them zeroes for it or eliminating the D to push kids to aim higher.

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Robert Rodriguez is one of the lucky ones. He frequently missed school at San Diego LEADS to translate medical appointments from English to Spanish for his ailing mother. Good grades were a distant dream. Rodriguez, who thought college was off limits for immigrants, didn’t see the point.

But when a teacher tapped him for student government — and the school bent the rules to let him in — Rodriguez suddenly had a stake in his grades. He upped his grades and eventually went to City College.

Yet even his success story shows the gaps in the system.

If his teacher hadn’t paid close attention — something that can be tough to guarantee in big high school classes — Rodriguez might have stayed on the same path.

Critics say those lifelines may come too late and too haphazardly for kids who get disheartened and stop trying.

Activists from the San Diego Organizing Project are pushing for an early warning system that targets struggling kids for specific, automatic help even earlier than freshman year and that goes beyond the school district, linking city and county groups into a joint agency focused on youth delinquency.

“It can’t just be the school district trying to do it,” said Joseph McKellar, a community organizer.

The chances for students to clean up poor grades are also under threat in San Diego.

Rodriguez relied on summer school and night school to pull off his turnaround, but nobody is sure whether or not San Diego Unified will offer summer school this year to high schoolers who don’t have disabilities.

Some high schools also limit their online classes to kids who have gotten Fs, which means students with Ds are stuck in limbo, below the graduation grade but unable to fix it. That leaves retaking classes, which is tedious at any school and even more difficult at the small high schools. Some kids get fed up.

“You can replace Fs,” said Joe Austin, principal of LEADS at San Diego High. “You can only dilute Ds.”

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While poverty plays a big role in dragging down grades, schools can still help or hinder teens.

Though students at the most disadvantaged schools are more than three times more likely to get a D or F average than students at the least disadvantaged ones, there are remarkable outliers. Crawford Champs, a relatively disadvantaged school, enrolled a smaller percentage of kids got a D or F average than at La Jolla High.

Champs, for instance, teaches study skills to help kids do better in class. That’s something that a neighboring school, Crawford School of Law and Business, thinks it could learn from.

“We’ve forgotten about study skills,” said Patrick Holland, principal of Law and Business. One in four freshmen there earned a D average or less last year. “They don’t always have the concept that outside of class, they’ve got to study.”

Bad grades are the symptom of countless problems outside of school as well, from not showing up to class to having nowhere to do homework. Freshman year is also a sticking point for teens who aren’t academically prepared during earlier grades. San Diego Unified holds back a small group of failing eighth graders to try and stop that problem, but many avoid being held back and even more end up floundering in freshman year anyway.

And freshman year is socially turbulent. Kids switch to bigger schools where it’s easier to get lost or get distracted.

Christina Beucher, now at Twain, said she got all Fs in her freshman year at Kearny High School of Science, Connections and Technology because she cared more about friends than class.

Many young adolescents have trouble thinking past the present, said John Lee Evans, a school board member and child psychologist. Far fewer sophomores and juniors get the low grades that freshmen do, which might suggest that kids turn their grades around over time. But failing freshmen are also more likely to drop out completely or switch to alternative schools, skewing the numbers.

“I felt like I should just give up,” Valencia said. “But then I thought, I might as well keep my head up.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

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