San Diego Unified’s class of 2016 set a record-high graduation rate of 91 percent. Graduation rates at individual high schools are climbing, too. Recently, 13 San Diego schools made a list of best high schools in America, in part for their high graduation rates.

But a closer look at individual high schools reveals a trend that might seem contradictory at first glance: Schools whose graduation rates are rising are simultaneously losing a significant number of students to charter schools and schools in other parts of town.

Lincoln High, for example, posted an 84.7 percent graduation rate – the highest since the school reopened in 2007. But nearly 60 percent of the students who started as freshmen at Lincoln High transferred to another school before they completed their senior year. More students left Lincoln than any other traditional high school in the district.

Last week, we reported that 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 included students from all grade levels.

Neither San Diego Unified nor charter schools are breaking any rules as thousands of students shift from one to the other. But the relationship also allows charter schools to act as a safety valve for the district.

For the first time last year, San Diego Unified made a series of college-prep courses a high school graduation requirement. Students can avoid these classes, however, and still come away with a diploma simply by transferring to a charter school.

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District officials maintain that the number of students who are leaving had nothing to do with the district reaching a 91 percent graduation rate.

Ron Rode, a senior district manager and point person on academic data, pointed out that a higher percentage of students who left the district were on track to graduate than the percentage of those who left and were not on track. In other words, the group of low-performing students who left were outweighed by the students who were on track to graduate when they left.

But that doesn’t answer the more fundamental question of why so many students are leaving Lincoln and other district-managed schools.

Explanations offered thus far by district officials – that San Diego is simply a place where students move come and go – overlooks other factors district officials have themselves noted about Lincoln High. Namely, that a high percentage of ninth graders entering Lincoln High read at a second-grade level.

Below, you’ll see the number and percentage of students who left district-managed high schools between fall 2012 and spring 2016, which corresponds to when the class of 2016 entered and completed four years of high school:


According to district records obtained through public records requests, more than 57 percent of students who entered Lincoln as freshmen in 2012 left before they completed their senior year. That’s a higher rate of departure than any other traditional high school in the district.

Just over 12 percent of those who left transferred to a charter school in San Diego Unified’s boundaries – most leaving for Charter School of San Diego, a charter school that offers online classes and an independent study program tailored to students’ schedules and goals.

Another 172 students, or 38 percent, left the district altogether. Those students could have moved to a different school district or transferred to a charter school outside of the district’s boundaries.

At the same time, Lincoln’s graduation rate jumped 6 percentage points – from 78 percent to 84.7 percent.

Cindy Barros, head of Lincoln’s parent-teacher organization, suspects most students are leaving Lincoln because they’re behind in credits.

“I think a lot of kids are leaving behind they came in behind, and the school couldn’t fix them. The kids are already coming in so far behind and credit-deficient that the school can’t correct them. They don’t have enough classes set up to help them. We need to look at our middle and elementary schools, and what they’re doing to prepare our kids for high school,” she said.

That would fit with what Cheryl Hibbeln, director of secondary schools, told a group of Lincoln parents earlier this school year. When parents asked Hibbeln to explain the reasoning behind an upcoming change in class schedules, Hibbeln told them that students needed extra time because too many arrive reading at a second-grade level.

Staff members at Lincoln High did not respond to questions about why so many students are leaving the school. But under-enrollment has been one of the school’s chief concerns for the past 10 years.

Lincoln was reopened in 2007 after a $129 million rebuild. District officials hoped neighborhood students would flock to the newly renovated school. And they did. More than 2,300 students clamored to get into the school when it first opened.

But after a rocky start, Lincoln was never able to gain traction. By last September, enrollment had dropped to 1,447 students.

Problems continue to plague the campus – top among them, leadership turnover. The school has had four principals since 2007 and is currently searching for its fifth.

Earlier this year, it was clear that the latest effort to reboot the school – by offering community college classes to Lincoln students – had backfired. Students who’d signed up for college classes were routed into a remedial math course, whether or not they’d asked for it. Roughly 75 percent of those students ultimately failed the class, which the school’s principal attributed partly to lack of academic support for the students.

In response, San Diego Unified etched out an agreement with the San Diego Community College District to withdraw those students from the class so Fs don’t remain on their college transcripts.

Lincoln’s struggles are well documented, but it wasn’t the only school to lose a high percentage of students and simultaneously see a rise in its graduation rate.

Morse High, also in southeastern San Diego, graduated 95 percent of last year’s seniors and recently landed a spot on U.S. News and World Report’s 2017 list of “Best High Schools in America.”

Roughly 42 percent of the students who started at Morse left before the end of their senior year. Ten percent of those students left for charter schools and 25 percent left the district altogether.

Hoover High, in City Heights, lost 45 percent of its class of 2016 cohort by May 2016. A number of Hoover students transferred to nearby Arroyo Paseo charter school.

And while Hoover High landed an 86.7 percent graduation rate and a 4.8 percent dropout rate, Arroyo Paseo’s graduation rate came in at 61 percent last year. Its dropout rate was 24 percent.

When students transfer from a traditional high school to a charter school, they are no longer included in the district’s graduation rate. And when low-performing students drop out after they transfer to a charter school, the dropout counts against the charter school – not San Diego Unified – even if students transfer in their fourth year of high school.

Citing low graduation rates, the San Diego Unified school board recently voted to deny the renewal of Arroyo Paseo’s charter. The school will have to close after June 30 if it doesn’t appeal to the San Diego County Board of Education and emerge successful.

    This article relates to: Charter Schools, Education, Graduation Rates, Lincoln High

    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:

    John H Borja
    John H Borja subscriber

    And, yes, some high schools will demonstrate a higher rate of graduation because the high schools lose students to many reasons, including transferring to another school.

    By the opposite token, schools like the Preuss School are touted for high graduation rates only because they are exclusive. That is, those schools can pick and do pick only certain students. Granted,. the Preuss School provides an exclusive program for students coming from very low income families who demonstrate extraordinary potential academically. But, it is a charter school. The question I have is why was the San Diego Unified School District unable to provide a school like this without the "charter" status?

    Charters are not the panacea for the ills of a particular school district. And, as some very politically conservative legislators in Texas have pointed out, charters and the independent business people who run them, take money away from other worthy non charter public schools in a district.

    Money for public schools anywhere in the U.S. is very limited and in some cases scarce. Taking money away from public schools is the wrong recipe for school improvement.

    Very strong forces against public schools abound. Prayer is not allowed because that is a family/home decision. Children with special needs are schooled because all children have a right to an education. Color, ethnicity, and personal philosophy are woven into public schools because people with these traits are in America, are in our neighborhoods.

    Public schools are the best deal dollar for dollar to launch children to their personal goals. 

    shawn fox
    shawn fox subscriber

    @John H Borja What data do you have that backs up your claim about public schools being the best deal dollar for dollar?  The schools seem to be in constant financial trouble so I find your claim to be highly dubious.  I don't know if Charters significantly improve things, but I try to keep an open mind about it.   Competition seems like the only thing that will create accountability.  Charters are also still public schools as far as I can tell so your final statement is ambiguous to me.  I assume you are excluding charters from your final assessment.  Is that correct?  I would think that home schooling is the best deal dollar for dollar consider how high taxes are.  Even if one parent wasn't working the family  would remain in a lower tax bracket, would not have high child care costs that would eat away at the second family income (along with taxes), and families that home school appear to be overwhelmingly successful.  Like you I couldn't prove that right at the moment, but your questions are thought provoking.

    The first question that you posed is an interesting one.  Perhaps regulatory barriers prevent the school district from doing that or perhaps the school board doesn't believe in that.  Do you think it would be a good idea to write to a school board official and ask them why?  If you can't get an answer then perhaps you should directly write to Mario and ask if he will pursue that angle in future reporting.  I'm sure that many would be interested in the answer including myself.  I've never seen serious answers to those types of questions posted in message boards.

    rhylton subscriber

    Come on Mario, try to remember arithmetic; numerators and denominators? Inverse proportionality? The trick used by the SDPD? No? 

    Reduce the denominator (lose students) and you increase the rate. Increase the numerator and you can have the same effect.

    Manipulate the denominator alone

    The SDPD does both of the above, especially with respect to Asians; the model minority.

    50/100 = 50.00%

    50/95  = 52.63%

    Manipulate both, and the effect is multiplied

    55/100 = 55.00%

    55/95  = 57.89%