San Diego Unified has a huge problem on its hands.

Data just released by the district shows troubling news about the class of 2016, the first class being held to new stricter graduation requirements. Among the revelations in the data:

• Only 59 percent of the class of 2016 is currently on track to graduate. That means about 3,000 students are currently falling short.

• The numbers are even more discouraging for troubled high schools like Lincoln, where less than 30 percent of students are on track.

• Most startling is the outlook for English learners. A mere 9 percent of them, districtwide, are currently in line to graduate. Nine percent.

• Only 24 percent of students with special needs are on track to graduate.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

The data has been a long time coming. Last summer, when I wrote that thousands of students in 2016 could fall short of revamped graduation requirements, the district said that it had the situation under control. The problem was, it still didn’t have the data that showed how many students were on track graduate in 2016.

Now, however, that data is ready – and it casts a harsh spotlight on where students currently stand.


Here’s how the district got here: Five years ago, San Diego Unified realized that a large number of students were making it through high school without the classes that would get them into the University of California or California State University systems.

The problem was worse for schools like Lincoln, Hoover and Crawford, which tend to have higher concentrations of black and Latino students, as well as a lot of English-learning students.

That drew calls from the ACLU and other advocates who said the district wasn’t giving students of color fair access to college prep classes.

The school board stepped up. Kind of. In 2009, it promised to look at the issue, and formed a committee to make recommendations as to how San Diego Unified classes could be better aligned with UC and CSU entrance requirements.

Around that time, Education Trust-West, an education policy advocate and research organization, conducted a transcript audit of San Diego Unified graduates that found:

• Wide disparities existed between schools that were meeting students’ needs and those that weren’t.

• Black and Latino students had less access to college prep classes.

• Black and Latino students weren’t doing as well as their peers in college prep classes.

Armed with the findings, the school board in 2011 upped the ante. All students had to take and pass a series of college preparatory classes, known as A-G courses, by the year 2016 or they wouldn’t graduate.

At the time, it looked like a success. The school board charted a course for the district, schools would fall in line and adjust their schedules accordingly, and more students would have access to college prep classes than ever before. That was the thinking, anyway.

But the numbers show that schools haven’t met the demands. Most ironically, black, Latino and students learning English – the very students the initiative aimed to help – are farthest behind.

Here’s how students are doing in specific San Diego high schools:

The district took umbrage earlier this year with the implication that it hasn’t done sufficient work to meet students’ need. The district has invested a lot of time and energy in ensuring all students have access to college prep classes and is committed to equity, a district spokesperson told me.

A presentation the district will deliver at this week’s school board meeting highlights some of that work. Last year, colorful posters explaining graduation requirements were distributed to every school, for example. Letters have been sent home to students’ families. Counselors have helped students create four-year plans.

Regardless, the recent numbers underscore just how much work the district has to do in the short amount of time between now and 2016.

Much of this work will fall on Cheryl Hibbeln, who was a standout principal at Kearny High before Superintendent Cindy Marten put her in charge of the High School Resources Office.

That means she’ll be making sure district principals are offering the classes students will need to graduate.

And some serious changes need to happen. For example, students need to pass three years of college preparatory math. But the district has long offered Unifying Algebra, a kind of watered-down math course that doesn’t count toward the new graduation requirements or admission to UC/CSU schools. Twelve high schools still offered the course as late as last year.

Many of the A-G requirements – four years of English, three years of math, history/social science and science – aren’t so different from what high schools have offered for years. The biggest sticking point, aside from an extra year of math, is the new requirement to take two years of the same foreign language.

Moving forward, the district will try to help students recover credits by offering more courses in summer school. And it may try to change some of the graduation requirements. English learners, for example, may not have to take two years of a foreign language if they’re already considered bilingual.

Students with special needs may be able to take sign language in place of a world language.

Some changes make sense – why should bilingual, Spanish-speaking students be required to take two years of another foreign language – but they also open the door to gently dulling the original policy.

    This article relates to: Education, Lincoln High, News, School Performance, Share

    Written by Mario Koran

    Mario is an investigative reporter focused on immigration, border and related criminal justice issues. Reach him directly at 619.325.0531, or by email:

    jronco subscriber

    Infuriating! Check out a solution offered regarding the 2 year world language requirement: "Students with special needs may be able to take sign language in place of a world language." Note... " sign language" rather than ASL and (grrrrrr) "in place of a world language" ... Ignorance shown at the level of those making the graduation requirements certainly will affect a school's ability to open and implement courses to meet them.

    ASL is a world language. The course is as rigorous as the other options students can choose from. It is not a language designed to remediate special needs but to utilize the natural visual access of a cultural linguistic community of Americans. Yes, it is an excellent language option to offer, but for all interested students, not only special education students. It is a practical, enriching language not a watered down option, which is, additionally, an insult to the abilities of the vibrant and able special education students within our district.

    Look deeper at overloaded caseloads for special education teachers across the district to provide the support needed for special education students to be successful. This is a negotiation point for the new contract that the district is not willing to remedy. Additionally, overloaded caseloads for high school counselors is even more grim. My school has each counselor at nearly 100 students over the current contract limit. This is the second year of a set of high school grievances continually denied by the district and discounted for negotiation on next year's contract. Teacher contract negotiations are an opportunity to listen and respond to staffing concerns most closely vested to students daily success. High school students need 5-day access to counselors... part time slots systemically compromise access to services and the numbers in this article suggest it is time to honor the investment to counseling services the current contract delineates and cooperatively negotiate contract language that will protect future student rights.

    James Wilson
    James Wilson subscriber

    Diego dad seems to be the only commenter who gets the truth. The Master Plan for Higher Education plans for the top ten percent of California high school students to go on and attend a University of California college. That is what the A-G requirements were developed for. Thus, the school board in the awful ignorance raised the bar foolishly. These requirements are a very elite bar meant only for the very gifted. It seems that the board needs a course in basic statistics. Half the population is below average and the issues of an urban school district make this kind of requirement dangerous. The ultimate result is pushing kids out of high school into gangs and crime.

    This is ironic when the California Partnership Academies have reported a ninety five percent graduation rate with all graduates receiving an employable skill. These career academies have a proven track record that the district would do well to expand. This is the kind of reform that can actually help kids. The college only mentality must go.

    DistrictDeeds wordpress com
    DistrictDeeds wordpress com subscriber

    @mariokoran This is just a continuation of what you have been saying in all of your earlier articles...and I commend you for it!  You have been revealing the truth...something that is in short supply in the PR obsessed SDUSD leadership.

    Marten and the Board of Education are good at hoopla and photo ops but when the data is revealed, it shows they are all complicit in a cover up of Marten's inexperience and poor leadership and the Boards support of it.

    Your article this summer was shortly after SCPA had our principal removed...I commented that how ridiculous it was for Marten to remove Principal Lizarraga when we had graduated 99% of our students..and how the Marten was just using Graduation Rates as talking points for her own ineffective administrative agenda.

    Your article above just reinforces that concept.

    In this article we now find that SCPA has an 80% "on track to graduate"...better than La Jolla High...better than Patrick Henry High...and with SCPA having an equivalent ELL's population and a Title 1 funds qualifying Free and Reduced Lunch (FRL) of 52% vs 38% at Henry and 21% at La Jolla

    On display is the total lack of wisdom and experience of Elementary School Superintendent Marten...she decided to remove the Principal at SCPA....who is now leading an even more prestigious Public Arts High School in Los Angeles...the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts -!about1/cwlj

    Marten and the Board will be naming the new SCPA Principal tonight at the Board of Education meeting...check out my take on the fake principal selection process on my blog at

    In my opinion, just more cover-ups and redundant nonsensical talking points by this District leadership who have no idea how to manage or retain talented personnel or any interest in really collaborating with the SDUSD Stakeholders.

    Mark Cafferty
    Mark Cafferty subscribermember

    Good article, Mario. Ensuring every student has the A-G credits they need in CA is exactly what SDUSD should be doing (IMO). But it is the work that goes into the transitional years during large-scale change efforts (like this) that is most critical. The additional supports needed for those students who are having the most difficult time making the grade (so to speak) are important to consider when budgeting and prioritizing resources. It would be cool for VOSD to do something really progressive in your “Meeting of the Minds” format, focused on what is truly working in k-12 education. I’d recommend getting a great education researcher on a panel with Reality Changers, Teach for America, High Tech High, e3 (at the Downtown Library) and/or a top academy from within SD Unified and have them share specific, tangible strategies that are working. A panel with lots of rhetoric about getting all kids to live up to their true potential and making sure we all set high expectations for students will accomplish nothing. But bringing in those educators and civic leaders who have created schools, programs and solutions that are working for hundreds of kids can become a starting point for analyzing what could work for thousands of kids. That is an ongoing conversation that VOSD could play a very important role in driving. Again, nice article. Thanks.

    mel luce
    mel luce subscriber


    Good article.  A lot of the problems can stem from earlier schooling.  For instance, my children entered High School without any Foreign Language nor Science classes, so that automatically puts them behind. I too was uneducated about these requirements, otherwise I would have fought for them at my children's school.  We will most likely take our youngest out of Middle School were she currently attends and put her in a STEM oriented school that does have Foreign Language.  Many schools don't inform their parents much about anything beyond fundraising.  All children should have basic skills of balancing their checkbook, bill paying, basic finance, home economics, computer skills, basic courtesy, some foreign language, some sort of sport or extracurricular, when graduating High School, in the very least. 

    DiegoDad subscriber

    College prep courses should be available to all students, but not required to graduate.I’d rather see some of these kids take consumer math where the can learn about interest on loans, compounding interest on investments and how to create a budget, or business composition where they can learn how to write a professional letter or email.

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember


    Not everyone is college material and the required graduation curriculum should reflect that

    michael-leonard subscriber

    YES! Used to be there were two main courses of study: academic (college prep) and vocational (job prep). Whatever happened to the latter? And WHY doesn't SDUSD bring it back??

    Ray Adair
    Ray Adair subscriber

    @DiegoDad College is a great experience and an opportunity we need to make available to all, but it is not the sole purpose of high school. To not graduate is to fail, but students who are not going to college right after high school, or who are going to community college, or who are going to work a trade and live as productive citizens are will now be labeled failures because they can't graduate high school. 

    This has clearly been done with the best of intentions, but it will hurt today's children and tomorrow's citizens.


    @andy_keatts @andykoppsd no… what’s the usual level of students not being prepared to graduate about 2 years out? how does this # compare?


    @rdotinga @andy_keatts not sure of stat, but it's almost impossible to see how 59% becomes 88% in < two years w/out slipping kids through.


    @rdotinga @andy_keatts in this case ('16 cohort), 5% repeated/ing 9th/10th grade, 9% behind 1 semester/subject, 18% behind > 1 semester, etc


    @MarioKoran There is a silver lining in every cloud! a-g completion: 4 in 10 in 2009; 5 in 10 for class of 14; 6 in 10 for current juniors.