Charter schools that allow students to recover credits through online courses are serving as an escape hatch for high school students in San Diego Unified who are least likely to graduate.

Between 2014 and 2016, at least 891 students left San Diego Unified high schools for charter schools geared toward helping at-risk students recover credits, according to data from five local charter schools. Some students told Voice of San Diego that principals and teachers at traditional schools had recommended they leave for these charter schools.

At the time they transferred, 551 students – roughly 62 percent – were one or more semesters behind on the credits they needed to graduate high school.

But instead of making up those credits in a San Diego Unified high school, they transferred to a charter school where they didn’t have to complete the same college-prep classes as students in district high school. The district, then, simply factored them out of the class of 2016.

The 551 students who transferred to charter schools only represent a fraction of the 6,428 total students in San Diego Unified’s class of 2016. Still, had they dropped out or failed to graduate, it would had a notable impact on the overall graduation rate – dropping it from 92 to 83 percent.

Superintendent Cindy Marten and school board members have repeatedly held up its graduation rate as validation of its approach – they even mentioned it in a recent resolution inviting U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to visit so she could see first-hand what’s being accomplished in San Diego schools.

Neither the district nor the charters are breaking any rules as hundreds of students shift from one to the other. But the numbers offer a window into the way a school district benefits from a system that allows it to unload its lowest-performing students and maintain a graduation rate above 90 percent.

It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. Charter schools benefit from the increased enrollment and state money that follows students. San Diego Unified is able to maintain a high graduation rate, which it highlights as a major success.

“San Diego is changing the education conversation in the state of California by showing you can raise graduation standards and graduate more students at the same time. The fact that it is our children leading this change — by stepping up to meet the challenge — makes me incredibly hopeful for the future,” Marten said in May.

The announcement of the record-setting graduation rate came as a surprise, however, to the researchers who had been tracking student progress. Just two months before the district announced it, researchers from UC San Diego looked at San Diego Unified’s numbers and predicted 2016’s graduation rate would dip from previous years.

Those researchers tracked student data through August 2015. At the time, about 15 percent of the class of 2016 had more than a year’s work to complete and less than a year to do it. For that, they estimated the grad rate would top out at 85 percent – very close to what the rate would be if you factored out the 551 students who were far off track and left for charters.

At a school board meeting in May, Marten attributed the rising grad rates to hard work and creative problem-solving.

Counselors and principals scoured student records and ensured they were enrolled in classes they needed to graduate, officials said. English-learners were allowed to test out of foreign language requirements. And the district expanded its own array of online courses offered within traditional San Diego Unified schools, which allow students to work at their own pace and make up classes they previously failed without having to retake the entire class.

But what neither Marten nor other district officials mentioned was that a significant number of students were also leaving the district for charter schools that don’t require students to pass a series of college-prep class known as A-G courses.

Motivated to expand access to college-going classes, school board members approved a policy in 2011 that required all San Diego Unified students to complete A-G courses in order to graduate high school.

Data now reveals, however, that a significant number of students are able to escape those requirements and come away with a diploma simply by transferring to a charter school.

In October, VOSD requested district data that showed the number of students who left the class of 2016 for charter schools, and their academic standing at the time of departure. San Diego Unified has not yet provided that information.

District spokesperson Shari Winet declined to discuss the numbers for this story, saying only that the district cannot comment on information VOSD received from other sources.

But five local charter schools did provide data on the number of students they received from San Diego Unified high schools. All five charter schools specialize in helping at-risk students recover credits. They include: Charter School of San Diego, Audeo, Laurel Prep, Ingenuity and Diego Hills.

That data does not reflect all class of 2016 students who transferred to charter schools. More than 50 charter schools operate within San Diego Unified’s boundaries, and there are dozens more in nearby school districts.

At credit-recovery charter schools, students complete coursework at their own pace and can perform the bulk of the work from home. The charter schools still get state money tied to student enrollment, but the money is based on the work students complete, as opposed to the time they spend in seats.

Apart from the rigor of online credit-recovery classes, the more relevant question may be whether San Diego Unified employees expressly encouraged students to leave district high schools because they were behind in credits or unlikely to graduate.

In October, VOSD asked San Diego Unified to describe its policies for referring students to charter schools.

“The district does not have a policy of referring students to charter schools,” district spokesperson Jennifer Rodriguez wrote in an email.

But that wasn’t true. The district has a procedure for referring students to alternative schools. And while that procedure doesn’t specifically mention charter schools, a related form clearly identifies charter schools as an educational option for students.

When confronted with the discrepancy, Rodriguez said VOSD had “falsely interpreted” her response.

“If you really want to know whether we have a policy of pushing students out to charters – excluding them, as you wrote this week – the answer is no, we do not,” she wrote.

But in a recent visit to Diego Hills, a charter school in Rolando that specializes in credit recovery, several students described informal exchanges they or their parents had with San Diego Unified staff members before they transferred.

Those students described long-running behavioral problems at their former schools that ended in expulsion. Others said principals or counselors advised them a charter school like Diego Hills would be a better fit.

“I came here from Patrick Henry because they didn’t want to deal with me,” said Genesees Romero, who is 17. “Instead of working with me, they just decided to kick me out.”

If the students’ stories are accurate, it wouldn’t be the first time a California school district raised its graduation standards only to cut corners to earn a high graduation rate.

In 2002, San Jose Unified became the first school district to require students pass A-G courses in order to graduate. Early on, San Jose boasted a major success, inspiring other California school districts to adopt similar policies. But six years later, it was revealed that school district had artificially inflated its numbers, counting seniors who were close to completing A-G courses as having fulfilled the requirements.

San Jose Unified also provided students an escape hatch: It allowed students who struggled in rigorous classes to transfer to alternative schools and graduate from there.

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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