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San Diego Unified’s graduation rate reached 91.2 percent this year, including significant improvements in the graduation rate of blacks and Latinos.
In the 1980s, Jaime Escalante, a math teacher portrayed in the movie “Stand and Deliver,” taught calculus at a working-class, largely Latino high school in East Los Angeles. When his students passed the AP Calculus tests, there was an immediate accusation that they had cheated. How could “those kids” possibly succeed? Well, they did.
When Richard Barrera and I came onto the San Diego Unified School District board of trustees in 2008, we not only wanted to improve the graduation rate, we also wanted to make graduation more meaningful. In 2011, when we approved moving toward the more rigorous A-G course requirements as part of Vision 2020, one talk radio host proclaimed that we would be unleashing hundreds of high school dropouts onto the streets. Well, “those kids” of the class of 2016 proved the naysayers wrong. Higher expectations, along with proper support, produce higher results.
So how is high school changing in San Diego Unified? First, we are providing more relevant courses to engage students and prepare them for the future. Students can take courses and internships in engineering, health care, business, information technology, culinary arts, automotive technology, broadcasting and much more. This is alongside standard college-prep courses and music, the arts and athletics. This is not your father’s high school. Engaged students stay in school and go on to succeed.
We are working with our teachers to have high expectations for all of our students, regardless of background, through our work with the National Equity Project. We now carefully monitor each student’s individual progress to make sure he or she is on track to graduate. We have scrapped the old credit recovery courses that led to a meaningless diploma and have replaced them with online courses approved by the University of California. Online courses are also available for our high-performing students who want to accelerate their learning. We are collaborating with our local colleges to expose students to university-level work before they graduate from high school.
How could “those kids” succeed? Is someone cooking the books? Here are a few of the alleged problems:
Not all of the students who started as freshmen are included in the graduation rate.
In a mobile society, calculating graduation rates is very complicated. Students move out of the district and out of the state. The state has a standard method for this calculation, which San Diego Unified must follow. Last spring, our district estimated our graduation rate to be 92 percent and the final state calculation is 91.2 percent. We compare ourselves to similar districts in the state and came out on top. If the state changes its methodology after a routine audit, so will we. Charter school students cannot be counted. We lose both low-performing and high-performing students to charters. Some even come back to the district after they catch up on credits. But we are developing more programs for both high- and low-performing students to stay at their neighborhood school.
When students are behind in credits, they are put into online courses and do not have to spend “seat time” in an entire course. The implication is that they are getting watered-down curricula.
If a student mastered half of the material of a course, it makes no sense to repeat all of the same material. The student needs to learn the material not already mastered. NCAA rules for college athletes have been quoted, but that is irrelevant for high school. We follow the gold standard for rigor, which is UC approval for online high school courses. We also use UC-approved online courses for our advanced students. UC also approves our testing program, which allows students to get language credit if they are fully literate in a language other than English. We want all students to be fluent in two languages.
Standards were lowered by allowing students with Ds to pass college prep courses.
No standards have been lowered. Ds have always been acceptable for high school credit. That is not new, and has nothing to do with the new A-G requirements. We did not lower standards. San Diego Unified requires a 2.0 GPA to graduate. Some districts do not even have a minimum GPA. Check out Poway’s requirements. But by exposing all of our students to college-prep courses, the actual number of our students who achieved UC/CSU eligibility in this first year increased by an astounding 47 percent.
We still have a long way to go in closing the achievement gap and in making sure every student succeeds in San Diego Unified. We are increasing our support of English-language learners and focusing on K-3 literacy. Not only will we increase the number of students who graduate, but the diploma will be more meaningful.
John Lee Evans is a San Diego Unified trustee. Evans’ commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.