In 2014, when San Diego Unified released data that showed how many students were on track to meet more rigorous graduation requirements, the numbers felt like a punch to the gut.

Districtwide, only 59 percent of students were on track to graduate. The numbers were far worse for students of color and those at schools with high concentrations of poverty. A mere 9 percent of English-learners were on track to graduate by 2016.

Two years later, projections have improved significantly. A report recently released by UCSD researchers estimated 72 percent seniors should graduate this year. And school board trustee Richard Barrera said he’s confident the graduation rate will grow to 90 percent by August.

If Barrera’s prediction turns out to be true, district officials will be able to say they’ve led San Diego Unified to an all-time high graduate rate – and that they’ve done it under even tougher graduation requirements.

But even if the district hits its mark, it doesn’t tell parents much about how it happened or what the resulting diploma means.

After she was promoted from principal of Kearny High to district high school resources officer, Cheryl Hibbeln made fast work of working with school principals to adjust class schedules and make sure they’re offering classes students need. Summer school and online course offerings have been expanded so students can take remedial courses and get caught up.

To be sure, just because students are promoted from one grade to the next doesn’t necessarily mean the resulting diplomas are worth as much. A 2013 study by the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan think tank, warned against grade inflation and social promotion – passing kids along so they can keep pace with students their age.

But the urgency to get kids out the door on time has pushed district officials to rethink school schedules so students have more time in class. Two weeks ago, the district hosted it’s second in a series of meetings connected to an initiative to raise the graduation rates of English-learners to 90 percent within four years.

The second meeting, this one at Hoover High School, began much like the first: Experts opened with an academic conversation about effective strategies for reaching English-learners. Teachers and staff members nodded knowingly to points raised by experts. Parents sat quietly, listening on headphones to translations of the speakers’ words.

The highlight of the night came from students, who were invited to share the things that helped them most.

Joseph Ekyoci, a student at Hoover, was born in Congo and spent most of his life in a refugee camp. He spoke little English when he first got to Hoover. While he absorbed the culture shock, Ekyoci had to navigate a new school system in a new language.

So, what’s the one thing that kept him in school when it would have been so much easier drop out?

“It was the four-by-four program,” he said. “Thank you, Mr. Austin,” he said to his principal, Joe Austin. The room exploded with applause from teachers.

The four-by-four program that made all the difference for Ekyoci isn’t really a program at all. It’s a way schools can schedule classes so students take fewer courses each day, but spend more time in each of them.

In most San Diego Unified high schools, students take six 55-minute classes a day. Classes last for the whole school year. By May, students will complete six courses. (Hopefully.)

Under a four-by-four schedule, students take only four classes per day, but each class is around 90 mins. Courses are a semester long, so students can complete eight credits by the year’s end.

That makes the four-by-four schedule an attractive choice for schools that have a lot of kids who need to make up credits. Six high schools run classes this way, including Hoover. Lincoln High is also making the transition.

The four-by-four schedule could work for all students who need to get caught up on credits, but teachers and principals say it can be especially beneficial for English-learners.

Not only does it give them a chance to catch up on college-going credits, but longer class periods offer teachers more time to take concepts deeper, plan projects or build into classes multiple opportunities for students to converse. (Oral language practice is crucial for English-learners.) Because teachers spend more time with students each day, they have an opportunity to get to know and bond with students.

And it’s not just disadvantaged kids who could benefit from a four-by-four.

Amy Redding, a parent whose son attends Kearny, said the four-by-four schedule allowed him to take more rigorous math classes. Like a lot of students at Kearny, he’s able to take courses for college credit at Mesa College.

“I love it because it not only allows the kids who are behind to get caught up, but it allows kids who are further ahead to take more advanced classes,” said Redding.

It sounds like a winner. But I wanted to know, if a four-by-four schedule offers so many advantages, why doesn’t every school do it?

“The rub is that in a four-by-four schedule, you have 22 percent less instructional time in a year. Teachers balk at that, and rightly so, because that’s a lot of instructional time to give up,” said Austin.

Some of this comes out in the wash, though, Austin said. Teachers might have less instructional time each year, but they also save the time students would otherwise spend transitioning to their next classes. You remember – the first and last five to 10 minutes of each class is often a waste.

But to Austin, the biggest reason the four-by-four wins out is because it cuts down the number of students teachers are responsible for each semester.

“If teachers are responsible for four class loads instead of six, it’s more reasonable of me to expect teachers to truly get to know their kids,” Austin said.

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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