A program created to give Lincoln High School students access to community college courses left the majority of its students with failing grades last semester.

In response, San Diego Unified etched out an agreement with the San Diego Community College District last week to withdraw those students from the class so Fs don’t remain on their college transcripts.

Neither the community college district nor San Diego Unified would confirm the number of students who failed, citing student confidentiality laws. But an internal report from Lincoln High, obtained by VOSD, indicates that 49 of the 66 Lincoln students who took a remedial math class at San Diego City College last semester failed the course.

Earlier this month, students who failed the course received letters in the mail notifying them they are disqualified from taking any more community college courses until they graduate high school because their GPAs dropped below a 2.0.

“Due to your academic standing, a hold has been placed on your record and you will not be allowed to register until you graduate from high school. Please note that college records are permanent and will follow you throughout your academic career,” the letter reads.

Access to college classes was envisioned as a way to give students a leg up and set them on a course for college. What they got instead was a letter saying they were barred from taking more courses and transcripts that could threaten their ability to get in somewhere. In the very best-case scenario, they wasted a semester on a class they’ll retake.

Earlier this month, Cindy Barros, president of Lincoln’s parent-teacher organization, emailed district officials asking for a full accounting of the problem and a chance for students who earned Ds and Fs to earn higher grades.

“This program that was implemented by you has failed the students of Lincoln, once again. We have seniors that will not meet their graduation requirement, students with F’s on their high school transcript and community college transcript. This makes it virtually impossible to achieve any type of success at the next level.  Not to mention the emotional impact this will have on these students who had to believe the adults had their best interest in mind,” Barros wrote.

Barros said she hasn’t heard back from district officials.

The ordeal comes two years after San Diego Unified launched the STEAM Middle College, a program that allows Lincoln High students to take classes at City College. Officials pitched the program as way to repopulate the beleaguered high school campus.

And despite the mess with the Lincoln students, San Diego Unified is promoting the rising number of high school students enrolled in college classes.

In response to questions from VOSD, San Diego Unified and the Community College district released a joint statement:

“Because of concerns expressed by SDUSD and SDCCD, and in accordance with the terms and conditions of the partnership agreement between the two districts, a thorough review was conducted on the circumstances surrounding the Math 96, Intermediate Algebra and Geometry, course offered at Lincoln High School during the fall 2016 semester.

The review identified irregularities which may have contributed to a large number of students receiving a final grade of “D” or “F.”  Following the review, SDCCD determined that students who did not pass the class will, instead, receive a late withdrawal in accordance with state regulations.
SDUSD and SDCCD officials have been meeting to collectively address the irregularities and provisions of the partnership agreement to ensure that they do not recur. City College and Lincoln High School remain committed to the success of our students going forward.”

Neither district offered details on the “irregularities” or why so many students failed the course.

Prior to last semester, roughly 200 students completed Middle College courses with better than a 95 percent pass rate, according to data from San Diego Unified. At the time, students at Lincoln could choose from Chicano literature, black studies and a course called personal growth, which served as an introduction to college classes.

But before the start of last semester, district administrators decided Lincoln students would be offered only one college course: a remedial math class. At the time, Lincoln had just let go of its former principal and was searching for his replacement. Mildred Phillips, the administrator who previously oversaw the Middle College program at Lincoln, had just retired.

Other Middle College courses had been canceled prior to the start of the fall semester, but students said nobody told them that. They showed up to their assigned classes to find empty rooms with no instructors.

Cheryl Hibbeln, a senior San Diego Unified official who oversees high schools and pushed for the recent Middle College changes at Lincoln, said at an October school board meeting that students would be better prepared for college if they took a remedial math course at City College. That way, students could fulfill a high school graduation requirement and avoid having to take a remedial math course once they get to college.

It didn’t work out that way. Of the 96 students routed into the math course, about 30 students dropped the class, either because they lacked prerequisite classes or no longer wanted the course, according to Lincoln High administrators.

Of the 66 who remained, only 17 passed – a 25 percent pass rate.

In an interview earlier this month, Shirley Peterson, Lincoln’s interim principal who came out of retirement to lead the school, offered little clarity on why so few students passed the course. She arrived at Lincoln in September, she said, after the semester had already started.

“I don’t have all of the history of what happened regarding the [course] offerings or why. I know that there’s a plan of action moving forward to offer more courses and have more students get the opportunity for college courses,” Peterson said.

The Community College District has not yet addressed whether it will allow other high school students failing college courses to withdraw if it happens in the future.

It’s an issue that may impact a growing number of students. In June, San Diego Unified announced that it planned to offer college classes to 3,500 students during the 2016-2017 school year, a 75 percent increase from last year.

“To meet the demand [for college courses], San Diego Unified will partner with local colleges to offer more than 110 courses at 19 district high schools in areas such as math, English, political science, psychology and sociology,” the district said in a June press release.

San Diego Unified is pitching free community college courses as a way for students to lessen the financial burdens of college and enter four-year universities with college credits in tow.

High school students have taken community college classes in San Diego Unified for 40 years, Hibbeln said in October, but until recently, only high-achieving students en route to four-year universities had access. Moving forward, more students across the district will have access to the same opportunities, she said.

But Lincoln serves as a warning: Those students aren’t guaranteed to pass.

Elizabeth Larkin, principal of East Village High School, said that high school students need additional support to thrive in college classes, which move faster than high school classes.

East Village High students have taken classes at City College since 2008. East Village students generally spend their first two years preparing to transition to college classes. Effective study skills are enforced. Staff members collaborate regularly with City College professors to make sure students are prepared for college courses. Later, when students enroll in college classes, they have access to counselors who provide ongoing support.

“We don’t just throw them in there and say, ‘There you go.’ We have some kids who are just brilliant, but they’re not ready emotionally. Not all of our kids take college courses, and if we put them in they’ll fail,” Larkin said.

San Diego Unified officials have not commented on whether similar supports were provided to Lincoln students last semester, or why the pass rates dropped so steeply from previous years.

Barros, the Lincoln PTO president, said she’s just as concerned about the students who earned Ds in the program as she is about the ones who failed. Ds aren’t high enough to meet requirements for admission to UC and CSU schools. For the last-minute course changes, the lack of communication, the fact that students spent a whole semester in a course for which they won’t earn credits, Barros said the problem is on the district.

“San Diego Unified is failing the children of Lincoln high school,” Barros said. “These children must be made whole again.”

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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