This post has been updated.

Students who began as part of San Diego Unified’s class of 2016 but who left district high schools and transferred to a charter school had a combined grade point average of 1.75 at the time they transferred, district records released through a Public Records Act request show.

That bolsters the case that charter schools acted as an escape hatch for San Diego Unified students, taking in some of the school district’s lowest-performing high school students and helping the district land a 91 percent graduation rate in 2016 – the highest on record.

On a 4.0 scale, a combined GPA of 1.75 equates to a C-minus average. In order to earn a high school diploma from San Diego Unified, students have to pass all high school requirements and have a GPA of 2.0 or higher.

Not only does the data show the lowest-performing students were transferring out of the district, school officials now admit that’s exactly what has happened in the past – a major reversal after vehemently denying that was the case.

In March, students at one charter school told Voice of San Diego they left the district after staff members at their San Diego Unified schools encouraged them to leave because they fell behind in credits or exhibited behavioral problems.

Soon after the story published, the district created an entire webpage devoted to refuting VOSD’s graduation rate reporting. On the site, the district emphatically denied its staff members encouraged any students to leave. In a section labeled “Is it true some schools push out the low-performers to boost their results?” the district wrote:

“No, that would be both morally wrong and financially foolish for any school to push out its students. Public schools have a moral obligation to serve the public and help every student reach his or her full potential. Financially, the resources that any given school or school district receive from the state are based on student attendance. In fact, there is frequent media coverage of the fierce competition between schools and school districts to increase enrollment.”

But San Diego Unified school board president Richard Barrera now says that Superintendent Cindy Marten discovered years ago that staff members at some schools were encouraging students to transfer to charter schools. This is nothing new, he said, and does not explain the class of 2016’s record high graduation rate.

“(Marten) identified a few years ago the issue of students who had fallen behind in high school leaving and enrolling in charters like Charter School of San Diego. In some cases she found a pattern of these students being counseled to enroll in these online credit recovery charters,” Barrera wrote in an email.

Between September 2012 and May 2016, at least 919 students from the class of 2016 transferred from a San Diego Unified high school to a charter school. Once students leave for a charter school, they’re no longer factored into the district’s overall graduation rate.

Barrera’s acknowledgement that school staff members have counseled students out of district high schools didn’t come as a surprise to Liz Larkin, who recently retired as principal of East Village High School, a district high school.

“All principals have done it. I did it. If students fall behind to the point where no matter what you do they still wouldn’t graduate, you have to give them some kind of option,” Larkin said.

Barrera said Marten’s discovery that high schools were counseling students to leave is one reason the district has been working to give principals more options to offer students in this situation.

Hoping to hang onto more students who might otherwise leave for charter schools, the district has spent at least $2 million over the past three years to expand its online courses and the facilities to serve the students enrolled in them.

Those online courses have sparked major concerns, however, among teachers and students – namely, that the courses are ridiculously easy to cheat.

Online courses aside, a San Diego Unified spokesperson wrote in a statement that the number of high school students leaving for charter schools is actually on the decline – a trend district officials find encouraging.

“The district is proud that the number of high school students leaving for charter schools has been on the decline for several years. The district believes this trend is due, in part, to its new rigorous graduation policy and the supports that have been implemented to help students earn a diploma. Even as fewer high school students leave for charters, the district’s graduation rate has increased,” the statement says.

The number of district high school students leaving for charter schools declined by .7 percentage points between 2012 and 2016, according to San Diego Unified. Still, numbers provided by a charter school association show the overall number of students who left for charters growing, not shrinking. Over the years, San Diego Unified officials have frequently voiced concern that a growing number of students are leaving for charter schools.

Where They Went

The biggest share of students who left San Diego Unified for charter schools transferred to Charter School of San Diego, which specializes in helping at-risk students recover credits so they can graduate.

In the 2015-2016 school year alone, 475 students left the district and transferred to the Charter School of San Diego or one of its two sister schools, Audeo and Laurel Prep Academy. The data reflects students who transferred during any year of high school.


Each school offers independent study programs, which allow students to create schedules tailored to their availability and goals, and online coursework students can complete from home. Students don’t have to physically attend school every day.

But the online courses are prone to the same cheating attempts as the online courses San Diego Unified offers.

At Diego Hills, a program similar to Charter School of San Diego’s, principal Lindsay Reese told me they took extra measures to prevent cheating once they learned all the shortcuts students can take in online classes. They made sure students took all tests and quizzes in front of teachers, for example, and returned to handwritten assessments instead letting students do it online.

Numbers from the California Department of Education showed that in the 2015-2016 school year, only 38 percent of students graduated from Charter School of San Diego. At Diego Hills, 20 percent graduated.

But because Charter School of San Diego and Diego Hills are both classified as alternative schools, the data doesn’t accurately reflect the graduation rate for the students they serve. It only reflects students who graduated within four years, and many of the students at alternative schools may still be enrolled in courses after four years of high school.

The state is developing a new accountability system to more accurately measure student progress at alternative schools. But for the moment, it’s very difficult to know how the students who left San Diego Unified for alternative schools fared.

Impact on the Grad Rate

While the number of charter schools in San Diego is on the rise, Charter School of San Diego has been around for years.

Barrera said that for more than a decade, Charter School of San Diego has taken in at-risk students from San Diego Unified and helped them recover credits, either so they could graduate from Charter School of San Diego or return to a district school and graduate from there.

But for the class of 2016, which set a record high graduation rate, Barrera said the low-performing students who transferred wouldn’t have necessarily failed had they remained in a district school. They could have taken credit recovery courses at a district school, for example, or benefited from any number of interventions San Diego Unified offers.

“This has been a practice that existed long before the class of 2016, and does not explain the steady increase in district graduation rates. But it is an issue we are now tackling by establishing similar programs at district high schools, so that charters are not the only option,” Barrera said.

Between 2010 and 2016, San Diego Unified’s graduation rate rose steadily from 82 percent to 91 percent.

Counseling students to leave a school, instead of helping them reach expectations, is a controversial practice. A 2005 report from the state Legislative Analyst’s Office raised concerns that alternative schools gave traditional high schools an incentive to push struggling kids out to rid themselves of problem students or simply make schools appear more successful:

“When low achieving students leave, for instance, average school test scores increase. This gives the appearance that the school is improving, and it allows the school to focus on the education needs of the more motivated students that remain. In addition, when students marked as ‘problems’ or ‘trouble makers’ drop out, they relieve educators of administrative headaches. As a result, inattention to the needs of these types of students can actually make schools appear more successful,” according to the report.

But Larkin, the former East Village High principal, said sometimes charter schools can seem like the only viable solution.

“There’s nothing evil or nefarious about principals counseling kids to leave for charter schools. They’re doing it because they want to see kids graduate,” she said. “If a student has a 1.8 GPA, has already done summer school and tutoring and all the interventions I can offer and is still failing classes, I can’t in good conscience look a student in the eye and tell him he has to stay at my school even though he probably won’t graduate.”

District officials are hoping that as they continue to expand online courses and alternative options, fewer students will leave for charter schools.

But it will take more time to see if the gamble pays off. Some students who left San Diego Unified for Diego Hills, for example, said they left the district because the courses at Diego Hills were a better fit for them. Others said they left because they didn’t like the way they were treated by teachers or principals at traditional schools.

One student who left Kearny High said she wouldn’t have returned to the school even if it offered the same classes as Diego Hills.

She wanted the fresh start, she said, where she didn’t feel like she had a dark cloud hanging over her head.

Update: This post has been updated to include the percentage of high school students who left San Diego Unified for district charter schools between 2012 and 2016. A district spokesperson provided the amount after this post was originally published.

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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