Last year, more than a third of the students who transferred from a traditional San Diego Unified high school to a charter school were a year or more behind their classmates at the time they transferred.

According to the district’s own data, which Voice of San Diego obtained through public records requests, 581 students left a traditional San Diego Unified high school during the 2015-2016 school year and landed at a charter school. Of those who left, 34 percent were a year or more behind at the time they transferred. The data includes students from all grade levels.

The findings come after state education officials released official numbers for the class of 2016, which showed a 91 percent graduation rate – an all-time high. The district considers the graduation rate a major triumph.

The new records quantify for the first time how many struggling students in the class of 2016 left high schools and how many of them were not on track to graduate. Some students told us they had been counseled to leave district schools, though district officials have contested those claims.

The district disputed numbers we published earlier this year, which were based on data from a handful of local charter schools. (Before fulfilling the most recent public records request, the district had declined to provide more complete data.) At one point, officials wrote on the district’s website there was “no reliable data on this question.”

But the district just provided its data. The records show how far students were behind when they left the district last year and also reveal which schools students left. Top among them were high schools in poorer areas like Lincoln High and Morse High.

Since May, when districts officials announced an expected graduation rate of 92 percent for the class of 2016, they’ve woven the accomplishment into political talking points. Marten made the graduation rates the centerpiece of her State of the District address. She pointed to them when arguing for additional funding from Sacramento. School board president Richard Barrera, who has been elected three times to the school board, cited high graduation rates in an argument against term limits for board members.

Making the milestone more remarkable was the fact the class of 2016 was the first to graduate under new, more rigorous standards. For the first time last year, all students had to pass a series of college-prep classes, known as A-G courses, in order to graduate high school.

For months, VOSD has been detailing the ways in which San Diego Unified achieved its unprecedented graduation rate. Whether it was revamping the courses high schools offered, allowing certain students to test out of requirements or losing low-performing students to charter schools, the district moved students toward its graduation rate in a variety of ways.

In response to our reporting, school board members and district officials have vigorously defended their numbers, arguing the loss of students to charter schools had no measurable impact on the district’s graduation rate.

The release of the new records, however, provides the clearest view yet of which high schools are losing the most students, and where those students are going.

This chart shows the number of students who left traditional district high schools during the 2015-2016 school year. Unlike VOSD’s previous reporting, which focused solely on data for the class of 2016 from five charters, the new data shows high school students of all age groups who transferred during a single school year.


Lincoln High, in southeastern San Diego, lost 72 students, or five percent of its enrollment last school year – the most of any traditional district high school. Nearby Morse High lost 60 students.

Those numbers solidify a trend that principals have noticed for years. Charter school leaders in the area say it’s increasingly common for students who leave Lincoln and Morse to show up at their doors, looking for more rigorous academic programs or a safer campus.

But higher-performing schools are also seeing a considerable number of students leave. Point Loma High, for example, lost 30 students to charter schools last year. Serra High and Scripps Ranch High lost 33 and 32 students, respectively.

Like other high schools, the largest share of students who last year left Point Loma High transferred to the Charter School of San Diego, which offers online classes and an independent study program – flexible programs tailored to students’ schedules and goals.

Of the 581 students who left a traditional district high school last school year, 397 students, or 68 percent, transferred to Charter School of San Diego.

In total, 475 students, or 82 percent of the students who left for charter schools last year, went to Charter School of San Diego, Audeo and Laurel Prep Academy – sister schools operated by the same nonprofit, Altus Schools.

Small numbers of students are spread out among other charter schools in the district.

where sd unified students went

The true number of students who transferred to charter schools, however, is even higher than shown in the chart.

According to the data, an additional 35 seniors from the class of 2016 left the district last year and transferred to local charter schools outside the district’s boundaries.

In graduation data the district previously released, those students weren’t included in the number of students who transferred to charter schools. Instead, they were counted in the number of students who transferred to a school in another district. That’s technically true. But counting them that way masked the real number of students who opted out of district schools and into local charters.

Since 2014, hundreds of students who left traditional district schools enrolled in charter schools like Diego Hills, Charter School of San Diego or similar schools that offer online classes and independent study programs.

A number of students at Diego Hills told us they left San Diego Unified high schools when they realized they were too far behind in credits to graduate with their classmates. Others said counselors or school staff members informally advised them to leave because of low grades or ongoing behavioral problems.

It’s a relationship that allows San Diego Unified to shed its lowest-performing students – making it easier to maintain a graduation rate above 90 percent – and charter schools to benefit from the influx of new students and the state funding that follows them.

Last month, the school district posted a response to our reporting on the district website. In a section labeled, “Would the graduation rate drop if charter school students were included in the result?” the district said our reporting wasn’t based on reliable data.

“In general, the notion that large numbers of charter school students are failing academically and would be a drag on the school district graduation rate if they were included in the rate appears to be unjustified. However, there is no reliable data on this question. The only reporting on the subject was incomplete – based on only 5 charter schools, and inconclusive – the data was unverified by the state or any outside agencies.”

Now, however, the district’s own data provides evidence that a significant number of students who transferred to charter schools were not on track to graduate with their peers.

academic standing

The chart only represents the students who left during the 2015-2016 school year, and includes students in grades 9 through 12. Of the 581 students who left for charter schools last year, 34 percent were a year or more behind at the time they transferred.

Numbers we previously reported came from individual charter schools and represent two years’ worth of data.

As we reported in March, data from six charter schools in San Diego County indicated at least 931 students from the class of 2016 transferred to the charter schools between September 2014 and May 2016. Sixty-three percent of those students were a year or more behind at the time they enrolled. If those students had stayed in the district and failed to graduate, it would have had a notable impact on the overall graduation rate – dropping it from 91 to 83 percent.

Trustee John Lee Evans, who has defended the district’s graduation numbers, characterized scrutiny of the graduation rate as prejudice against students of color.

“We’ve had a lot of criticisms and questions about it,” Evans said at a recent school board meeting. “How is that possible? How is it possible with an urban district with such a diverse population could produce this level of graduation? I’m reminded of the movie that some of you may have seen, ‘Stand and Deliver.’”

In response to the data recently released by the district, Evans acknowledged that low-performing students are leaving district high schools, but said high-performing students transfer to charter schools, too. And if low-performing students had remained in the district instead of transferring to charter schools, they’d have likely gone to an alternative school geared toward students who struggle, and graduated from there, he said.

Students who graduate from alternative schools can earn an alternative diploma, which meets the minimum requirements under California law. Students need roughly half as many credits to earn an alternative diploma as they do a regular diploma. Yet students who earn alternative diplomas are included in district’s the overall graduation rate.

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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