There appeared to be reason to celebrate this year for San Diego Unified.

The district had the lowest dropout rate and second-highest graduation rate among large urban school districts in California. Earlier this school year, the district was even a finalist for the coveted Broad Prize for urban education.

Parents in the district may be familiar with those accolades, because school board members like to remind them. But the number of students who are prepared for college when they graduate paints a more concerning picture.

Starting about six years ago, the school board faced a growing chorus of discontent from voices like the American Civil Liberties Union, which pointed out that thousands of students were graduating from San Diego Unified high schools without the classes they’d need to get into college.

The school board in 2011 voted to require all students to take classes they’d need to get accepted into the University of California and California State University systems. The goal was to ensure all students had access to a challenging curriculum.

These A-G classes, as they’re called, are sequential, and include 15 yearlong high school courses in various subjects. Students need to earn a C or better in these classes to have them count.

For many schools, the necessary courses – science, foreign language, math, visual and performing arts – weren’t radically different from what they’d previously offered. But the requirements were beefed up in other ways. Students would need two years of the same foreign language, for example.

It was an ambitious goal, and the district would need some time to adjust. So the board set a deadline: Starting in 2016, successful completion of A-G courses would be a requirement for graduation.

But now, two years away from that mark, and the district is a long way from getting there.

Numbers from 2013 – the most recent data available – show fewer than half the students in the district would be eligible to graduate under the upcoming standards. And the numbers are worse for black and Latino students.

More alarming is that number isn’t expected to improve much – only 5 percent next year and 10 percent the year after that, according the district.

That means about 3,600 students would be at risk of failing to graduate in 2016, and another 3,420 in 2017.

“You’re going to be leaving a lot of kids behind. And that’s just not acceptable,” said Amy Redding, who leads a district-level advisory group and is running for school board.

Redding, along with the district and advisory groups, helped create the Local Control Accountability Plan – a blueprint for how the district will spend the pot of money Gov. Jerry Brown is handing to school district – which was finalized this week.

Redding said that if the district plans to equip students for post-graduation studies, it needs to ensure everyone has access to A-G classes. And that starts earlier than high school.

“We need to have this conversation, and we need to have it now. It’s not going to help to have this conversation when the 2016 school year starts,” she said.

Students can take foreign language or math credits in middle school, for example, that will count toward their high school graduation requirements. But first, all middle schools need to offer those classes – and have teachers who can lead them.

Beyond that, Redding said it’s a matter of planning. If students don’t meet with their counselors in the freshman year of high school to create a four-year graduation plan, they might struggle to take and pass the courses they need for graduation.

That’s why she’d like to see a six-year plan starting in middle school, with enough counselors at that level to meet the demand.

Currently, the LCAP doesn’t address any of those specifics, how much the additional staffing would cost to implement this.

A district spokesman said that the LCAP is a living document that will change over time, but Redding and other parents said at this week’s school board meeting that the plan lacked details for how, exactly, the district will meet students’ needs.

At this point, what’s to blame for the fact that so many students are falling short – whether it’s a matter of students not having access to required courses, or a matter of them passing – is a question for the district.

So is the district’s plan to meet its own 2016 mandate.

“There’s a disconnect between what’s said at the district and what occurs at the school,” said Redding. “This is one of the biggest failings of the district. We make great plans and have great ideas, but the follow through just falls flat.”

Correction: A previous version of this story used an improper calculation, and misrepresented the number of students at risk of failing to graduate in 2016. The district estimates the number will be about 3,600 students.

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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