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At a June 2017 San Diego Unified school board meeting, then-board president Richard Barrera wanted to clear the air. “We’ve also had questions or criticisms regarding the increase in our graduation rates,” he said, referring to a yearlong investigation by Voice of San Diego that found the district’s unprecedented 2016 graduation rate was bolstered by the fact that many low-achieving students left for charter schools. “I believe those questions or criticisms need to also be understood and addressed publicly.”
Now more than a year later, many of the findings from VOSD’s reporting have been confirmed and addressed in a new report that rose out of that June board meeting. The report acknowledged that roughly 14 percent of high schoolers leave public schools for charters and that many are behind academically when they do. It also pointed to an “urgent need” for the district to intervene earlier with these students to help keep them on track to graduate from a public high school.
The process of creating the report took longer than initially expected, led to multiple drafts and required some committee members to fight for their recommendations to end up in the final version.
The report was generated by a select committee of community members and education professionals, who met roughly 10 times over the course of the last year. Part of their charge was to verify San Diego Unified’s “miracle” graduation rate of 91 percent for the class of 2016. They found that indeed the graduation rate was accurate, based on the state’s official formula for tallying graduates.
Some of the committee’s recommendations, which urged the district to do better at identifying students who are behind and retaining them, were not contained in the initial first draft, said Mel Katz, the committee co-chair. “The report that was first given to us,” he said, “was not a report the committee was happy with.” That first draft – prepared by a public relations firm Manolatos Nelson Murphy as part of a $25,000 contract – failed to represent the candid conversations of the committee members, Katz said. But Katz said he was pleased with the final report and believes that, in the end, the difficult process of pointing out what the district can do better worked well. (Disclosure: Katz is a donor to Voice of San Diego.)
The final report, and the district’s reaction to it, marks a dramatic change in attitude by district officials, who aggressively denied that students who were not on track to graduate were sometimes referred to charter schools with a focus on credit recovery when it was first revealed by VOSD. Once a student leaves for a charter school, he or she is subtracted from the roles of the graduating class – which ultimately improves the graduation rate – regardless of whether that student goes on to graduate from the charter school. One recommendation in the report is for the district to attempt to track which students graduate after they transfer to a charter school.
When VOSD began its series detailing how the district achieved its 2016 graduation rate, the district created a special web page designed specifically to refute its findings.
Yet when the report was released in July, Barrera admitted that students at the school level – though not as a matter of district policy – have been counseled for years to transfer to charter schools when they are not on track to graduate. Barrera said those students would have done better in public schools and the district has an obligation to keep them in the public system. Many showed signs of being academically behind as far back as third grade, according to the report, and yet the district failed to help them improve.
The report highlighted another key finding from VOSD’s reporting: that there are many students who aren’t counted in the official graduation rate. For instance, even though more than 11,000 students started as freshmen in San Diego Unified in 2012, only 6,148 graduated four years later in 2016. Obviously, that is not 91 percent.
But the official math is correct because schools can subtract students from the original “cohort” – that’s the word for any given graduating class – when they transfer to another school. Some of those students may go on to graduate; but a lot don’t. And they aren’t counted in the total of non-graduates. As the report and VOSD both noted, there is nothing nefarious or illegal about leaving these students out – in fact, it is how the state officially tracks students. But those students were clearly missing in the story of the 91 percent graduation rate.
Incidentally, recent changes to the state’s formula for calculating graduation rates mean the district will likely have a harder time replicating the 91 percent mark in the future. The federal government told state officials they had to stop counting high school equivalency exams and adult education degrees toward the graduation rate. That made the class of 2017 graduation rate in San Diego Unified drop from 90.6 percent to 86.6 percent – a figure much closer to the national average.
Superintendent Cindy Marten will be required to report back to the board in the coming weeks on the ways she plans to meet the committee’s recommendations. Those include: supplementing the official graduation rate with annual reports on the number of students who leave for district charters schools and identifying how many of them are behind academically; developing “an early warning system” for struggling students and helping them early, instead of losing them to charter schools, where they may also fail to thrive.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said the report found roughly a third of high schoolers leave public schools for charters. The district now says that line is a mistake and will be corrected in a final version.