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In San Dieguito Union High School District, one of the richest school districts in the county, a group of parents has declared war on the school board.
Two weeks ago, some 40 families hopped into their minivans, cars and SUVs to stage a drive-by protest at the San Dieguito district office. They blared their horns and waved homemade signs in the air. “Save our grades!” seemed to be the most common refrain.
Days later, a group of parents served the board president with a notice that they would attempt to boot her from office in a recall if she didn’t consider an immediate change.
It is perhaps the most unexpected controversy of the pandemic to have played out across school districts: a passionate and frenzied battle demanding letter grades, instead of credit/no credit for online coursework.
The parents of San Dieguito, and some other North County school districts, argue that depriving their high schoolers of letter grades might irreparably harm their children’s chances of getting into college. Those on the other side, including several superintendents, say that letter grading gives privileged kids, who may have better access to a home work space and other factors facilitating a good learning environment, an advantage.
When rich people go to war, politicians often listen. That’s what happened in Carlsbad Unified School District, just north of San Dieguito. Carlsbad initially instituted a credit/no credit policy for spring 2020. But after a parent uproar, the Carlsbad school board voted to give students an option to receive letter grades.
Parent pressure in San Dieguito is also forcing the school board to reconsider. Despite an initial credit/no credit grading policy, the board will hold a special meeting Thursday night and could vote to overturn the policy.
Vista Unified, to the east of Carlsbad, has so far managed to maintain its credit/no credit policy even though some parents protested.
The majority of districts in San Diego County are either offering letter grades or allowing students to choose whether they want to be graded.
Kim McLachlan is a dentist in Encinitas who has helped organize the protests against San Dieguito’s school board. She acknowledges some kids may have it tougher than others. But she thinks it’s wrong to prioritize them over the majority of kids in San Dieguito who have the time and space to improve their grades.
“For the sake of the minority you’re ruining it for the majority,” she said. “Yes, it’s a heart string thing, but I’m talking about math here. And you have way more people arguing like me than arguing, ‘I can’t do my work.’”
Some parents, herself included, are considering putting their kids in charter schools or private schools that offer grades, she said.
San Dieguito serves 13,177 students, roughly 12 percent of whom live close to the poverty line, according to state Department of Education data.
Most colleges have said they will not penalize students who receive credit-only in lieu of a grade. But McLachlan says she simply doesn’t believe them. She thinks colleges will lean on GPAs to make their determination, even if they have said otherwise.
“That’s just not gonna happen. They may have a policy about it. But I tell you it’s just not gonna happen. That’s why grades are so important,” she said.
The head of admissions at the University of San Diego strongly disputed McLachlan and, in fact, said that spring 2020 grades will be treated with skepticism by admission officers.
“Grades for this past semester are not going to be that impactful,” said Stephen Pultz, who also serves on the board of directors for a national membership organization that represents college admissions officers. “Colleges are going to look a little skeptically at that grade, because it’s going to be so varied” depending on the child’s school district or what access they had to extra resources, he said.
“That doesn’t ease my mind in any way, shape or form,” said McLachlan.
Jane O’Hara, another San Dieguito parent, along with dozens of others, joined McLachlan in pushing the school board to consider letter grades at a virtual board meeting in April.
“Life is super competitive. We all must compete for the spots we get. Grades are earned, not awarded,” she said. She asked board members to give students a choice about whether they wanted letter grades or credit/no credit.
San Dieguito Superintendent Robert Haley, who has pushed to keep the mandatory credit/no credit policy, wants you to picture the struggles of some of his students – some of whom may not even technically live in poverty.
“About 10 percent of our students” live closer to poverty, said Haley. “We also have a number of students who speak different languages at home and don’t have support easily available. But it’s not just the poverty. It’s students whose parents might have lost their job or had to close their business.”
Lots of students don’t have the space they need to work at home. Others have to babysit siblings, while a parent is away or tries to work from home themselves, said Haley.
Allowing some students to have grades, while others couldn’t give their best effort – through no fault of their own – would exacerbate existing inequities, said Haley.
Adam Camacho, who is principal of San Dieguito Academy, agrees – as do all the other principals in the district, he said.
“Our calling and our obligation is to serve all kids equitably, regardless of their different circumstances,” Camacho said.
McLachlan’s son Carson is a junior – the class placed in the most uncertain situation by the setbacks of the pandemic. For students who want to get accepted to college early, the last set of grades a college puts eyes on is usually the last semester of the junior year. That means junior year is the last chance for some to raise their GPAs.
(In other situations, colleges might be privy to a senior’s fall semester grades. Or they might even make acceptance conditional on a senior’s spring semester grades.)
“I’ve never been more stressed,” Carson texted me. “I’m used to controlling my grades and I can’t do that now and I am applying to colleges in August.”
Carson’s GPA is 3.87, said McLachlan. But at an elite high school like Torrey Pines in San Dieguito, that might as well be a 2.87, McLachlan said. Many of Carson’s classmates have above a 4.0 GPA and take many Advanced Placement classes, she said. (AP courses, because they are more difficult, allow a student to receive up to a 5.0 to add to their weighted GPA.)
McLachlan’s point is that at an elite high school, students need to have an elite GPA to be considered among the best of the best. Her current plan is to enroll Carson in three online AP classes at a charter school over the summer to help boost his GPA. Her initial plan was just to enroll him in one, but taking three AP courses will give him an even greater chance to boost his GPA.
“I’m a doctor and everyone thinks I make a lot of money, but I still need him to get a merit scholarship, because I already have two kids in college,” said McLachlan.
McLachlan says that denying poorer and more disadvantaged kids an opportunity to boost their GPA is harmful to them as well.
She hopes that on Thursday, the board will vote to give students a choice on whether to take letter grades or credit/no credit. Haley, the superintendent, said that offering a choice still means that students stuck in tough situations will ultimately have no choice.
“If he thinks this is going away, he’s sadly mistaken,” said McLachlan of Haley. “This thing is gonna go ballistic once kids find out they’re gonna have no grades.” McLachlan pointed out that, by her understanding, San Dieguito has the highest suicide rate of all school districts in San Diego County. “And you don’t think that type of anxiety when you take kids’ grades away … ”
She did not finish the thought.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misquoted McLachlan. Her full quote was, “I’m a doctor and everyone thinks I make a lot of money, but I still need him to get a merit scholarship, because I already have two kids in college.”