More stringent graduation requirements will kick in for San Diego Unified’s class of 2016, and to prepare for the crunch, the district said it has put more counselors in place, expanded summer school and is preparing students earlier for the college prep courses they’ll need to graduate.

But the 2016 deadline isn’t far away, and the district isn’t prepared to say how many students are on track to graduate.

And even though graduation requirements will be ramped up, the district says graduation rates won’t plummet because students can still pass tough new classes with Ds (so long as their overall grade point average is above a 2.0).

Fewer than half of all students who graduated from San Diego Unified in 2013 – the most recent data available – earned a C or better in so-called A-G courses, college-prep classes required to get into University of California and California State University schools.

And according to the district’s own numbers, those rates aren’t expected to improve much – only by about 10 percent in the next two years. Translate that to the number of students who would graduate ready for college in 2016, and thousands could fall short.

But Ron Rode, director of the district’s Office of Accountability, said it’s inappropriate to compare students who graduated in 2013 to students who may graduate in 2016.

For one thing, counselors have started preparing students earlier for A-G classes, Rode said. And requirements to get into UC and CSU schools are more stringent than what students will need to graduate high school within San Diego Unified. For college, students would need to earn a C or better in A-G courses. San Diego Unified students only need Ds.

But that opens the door to an uncomfortable possibility: A significant number of students may graduate high school in 2016 with close-to-failing grades.

A 2013 study by the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan think tank, drove home the unintended consequences that a shift to mandatory A-G requirements might have: To maintain graduation rates, schools or districts may begin to water down their curriculums, or bump failing students’ grades to Ds.

If courses are sequential, and students progress to advanced classes by earning Ds in the more basic ones, they could slow down the advanced class or become disruptive out of frustration, the report said.

The ABCs of A-G

In 2009, the San Diego Unified school board made a promise to give all students equal access to A-G classes. In 2011, they upped the ante: Students must take and pass the classes by 2016, or they won’t graduate.

The district doesn’t expect that every student will attend a four-year university, Rode said.

Rather, the intent was that every student would have access to those courses, so they’d be better prepared for life after high school – a rising tide lifts all boats, as the saying goes.

It’s hard to rail against educational equity. The challenge, however, is timing – and whether the 2016 mandate will become another obstacle that prevents more students from graduating high school.

Schools know, on a site-to-site level, how well their students are progressing, but that the data hasn’t yet been compiled in a comprehensive way, Rode said.

David Page, who served as chair of the district advisory committee from 2001 to 2011, said that the district can and should know now how many students are at risk of failing to graduate. Students need to take two years of the same foreign language and three years of math, which are taught sequentially.

“When the school board passed this, they all patted each other on the back and felt real good about it, but you can look at the learning curve and find out how many students are going to be eligible to graduate,” Page said.

District spokesperson Linda Zintz said the district has taken action to meet the coming crunch.

It has expanded summer school, for example, and 2,000 more students will be enrolled this year than attended last year. It’s also started offering foreign language classes during summer.

The district has also hired a master counselor who will make sure schools are offering students A-G courses. They’ll bring middle and high school counselors back to school days before the school year starts to help line up students’ classes, and will open a high school support office that will oversee the efforts.

Cheryl Hibbeln was principal at Kearny High before she moved over to lead that office. She said there may be some anxiety about preparing the class of 2016, but that it’s not much different from the pressure principals feel every year to make sure supports are in place for students.

Hibbeln said the challenge the district faces isn’t unique to San Diego Unified. The number of students who graduate meeting UC and CSU requirements is low across state. In 2013, the state average was about 39 percent.

But not every district has made A-G part of its graduation requirements.

“I’m not going to say I’m scared, but I’m going to say we need to be extremely purposeful. But you better believe that if I was still a principal I would have my students’ transcripts out and in front of me and I’d be credit checking them,” Hibbeln said.

Making it Work

San Diego Unified isn’t the first school district to try to make A-G courses part of graduation requirements. San Jose Unified took on the challenge in 2001.

But so far the gains have been incremental and on par with districts that didn’t have the requirements.

The improvements made by San Diego Unified since it first adopted its A-G-for-all approach has also been unremarkable.

A transcript audit by Education Trust-West, an education policy advocate and research organization, found that about 46 percent of San Diego Unified students met UC and CSU entrance requirements in 2009. Four years later, about 50 percent met the requirements.

The audit found additional concerns. Across the district, wide disparities existed between students at different schools, and varied by ethnicity.

For those familiar with San Diego Unified, it’s no surprise that high schools like La Jolla and Scripps Ranch are toward the top of the list.

These schools, which are in more affluent neighborhoods and perennially score better on standardized tests, have more college-bound students than inner-city schools like Lincoln and Hoover.

She didn’t create the A-G mandate, but now two years away from the deadline, it’s Superintendent Cindy Marten’s job to make good on it.

“I’m all about equity, I believe in it, I believe in the reasons why this decision was made,” Marten said. “The school board hired me to implement their vision. This is what I do. The board says what they want and why they want it. I decide how to make it happen.”

Marten is optimistic that the supports she’s putting in place – expanded summer school, interventions for students at the neediest schools and the new high school support office – will help catch students before they fall through the cracks and bring them up to speed.

It’s a challenge, but Marten isn’t dismayed.

“This is entirely doable,” she said.

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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