More stringent graduation requirements will kick in for San Diego Unified’s class of 2016, and to prepare for the crunch, the district said it has put more counselors in place, expanded summer school and is preparing students earlier for the college prep courses they’ll need to graduate.

But the 2016 deadline isn’t far away, and the district isn’t prepared to say how many students are on track to graduate.

And even though graduation requirements will be ramped up, the district says graduation rates won’t plummet because students can still pass tough new classes with Ds (so long as their overall grade point average is above a 2.0).

Fewer than half of all students who graduated from San Diego Unified in 2013 – the most recent data available – earned a C or better in so-called A-G courses, college-prep classes required to get into University of California and California State University schools.

And according to the district’s own numbers, those rates aren’t expected to improve much – only by about 10 percent in the next two years. Translate that to the number of students who would graduate ready for college in 2016, and thousands could fall short.

But Ron Rode, director of the district’s Office of Accountability, said it’s inappropriate to compare students who graduated in 2013 to students who may graduate in 2016.

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

For one thing, counselors have started preparing students earlier for A-G classes, Rode said. And requirements to get into UC and CSU schools are more stringent than what students will need to graduate high school within San Diego Unified. For college, students would need to earn a C or better in A-G courses. San Diego Unified students only need Ds.

But that opens the door to an uncomfortable possibility: A significant number of students may graduate high school in 2016 with close-to-failing grades.

A 2013 study by the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan think tank, drove home the unintended consequences that a shift to mandatory A-G requirements might have: To maintain graduation rates, schools or districts may begin to water down their curriculums, or bump failing students’ grades to Ds.

If courses are sequential, and students progress to advanced classes by earning Ds in the more basic ones, they could slow down the advanced class or become disruptive out of frustration, the report said.

The ABCs of A-G

In 2009, the San Diego Unified school board made a promise to give all students equal access to A-G classes. In 2011, they upped the ante: Students must take and pass the classes by 2016, or they won’t graduate.

The district doesn’t expect that every student will attend a four-year university, Rode said.

Rather, the intent was that every student would have access to those courses, so they’d be better prepared for life after high school – a rising tide lifts all boats, as the saying goes.

It’s hard to rail against educational equity. The challenge, however, is timing – and whether the 2016 mandate will become another obstacle that prevents more students from graduating high school.

Schools know, on a site-to-site level, how well their students are progressing, but that the data hasn’t yet been compiled in a comprehensive way, Rode said.

David Page, who served as chair of the district advisory committee from 2001 to 2011, said that the district can and should know now how many students are at risk of failing to graduate. Students need to take two years of the same foreign language and three years of math, which are taught sequentially.

“When the school board passed this, they all patted each other on the back and felt real good about it, but you can look at the learning curve and find out how many students are going to be eligible to graduate,” Page said.

District spokesperson Linda Zintz said the district has taken action to meet the coming crunch.

It has expanded summer school, for example, and 2,000 more students will be enrolled this year than attended last year. It’s also started offering foreign language classes during summer.

The district has also hired a master counselor who will make sure schools are offering students A-G courses. They’ll bring middle and high school counselors back to school days before the school year starts to help line up students’ classes, and will open a high school support office that will oversee the efforts.

Cheryl Hibbeln was principal at Kearny High before she moved over to lead that office. She said there may be some anxiety about preparing the class of 2016, but that it’s not much different from the pressure principals feel every year to make sure supports are in place for students.

Hibbeln said the challenge the district faces isn’t unique to San Diego Unified. The number of students who graduate meeting UC and CSU requirements is low across state. In 2013, the state average was about 39 percent.

But not every district has made A-G part of its graduation requirements.

“I’m not going to say I’m scared, but I’m going to say we need to be extremely purposeful. But you better believe that if I was still a principal I would have my students’ transcripts out and in front of me and I’d be credit checking them,” Hibbeln said.

Making it Work

San Diego Unified isn’t the first school district to try to make A-G courses part of graduation requirements. San Jose Unified took on the challenge in 2001.

But so far the gains have been incremental and on par with districts that didn’t have the requirements.

The improvements made by San Diego Unified since it first adopted its A-G-for-all approach has also been unremarkable.

A transcript audit by Education Trust-West, an education policy advocate and research organization, found that about 46 percent of San Diego Unified students met UC and CSU entrance requirements in 2009. Four years later, about 50 percent met the requirements.

The audit found additional concerns. Across the district, wide disparities existed between students at different schools, and varied by ethnicity.


For those familiar with San Diego Unified, it’s no surprise that high schools like La Jolla and Scripps Ranch are toward the top of the list.

These schools, which are in more affluent neighborhoods and perennially score better on standardized tests, have more college-bound students than inner-city schools like Lincoln and Hoover.

She didn’t create the A-G mandate, but now two years away from the deadline, it’s Superintendent Cindy Marten’s job to make good on it.

“I’m all about equity, I believe in it, I believe in the reasons why this decision was made,” Marten said. “The school board hired me to implement their vision. This is what I do. The board says what they want and why they want it. I decide how to make it happen.”

Marten is optimistic that the supports she’s putting in place – expanded summer school, interventions for students at the neediest schools and the new high school support office – will help catch students before they fall through the cracks and bring them up to speed.

It’s a challenge, but Marten isn’t dismayed.

“This is entirely doable,” she said.

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    Written by Mario Koran

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    Michael Russell
    Michael Russell subscriber

    The intent of the “a-g” subject requirements is to ensure that students have attained a body of general knowledge that will provide breadth and perspective to new, more advanced study.

    Courses from California high schools used to satisfy the "a-g" subject requirements must be certified by UC and appear on the school's "a-g" course list. These courses are to be academically challenging, involving substantial reading, writing, problems and laboratory work (as appropriate), and show serious attention to analytical thinking, factual content and developing students' oral and listening skills.

    The subject requirement
    • History/social science (“a”) – Two years, including one year of world history, cultures and historical geography and one year of U.S. history, or one-half year of U.S. history and one-half year of  American government or civics.
    • English (“b”) – Four years of college preparatory English that integrates reading of classic and modern literature, frequent and regular writing, and practice listening and speaking.
    • Mathematics (“c”) – Three years of college-preparatory mathematics that include or integrate the topics covered in elementary and advanced algebra and two- and three-dimensional geometry.
    • Laboratory science (“d”) – Two years of laboratory science providing fundamental knowledge in at least two of the three disciplines of biology, chemistry and physics.
    • College-preparatory elective (“g”) – One year chosen from the “a-f” courses beyond those used to satisfy the requirements above, or courses that have been approved solely in the elective area.
    A-G courses

    California high schools can submit their courses to UC for “a-g” certification using the Online Update website. A course's "a-g" approval is based on the “a-g” course evaluation guidelines and the subject-specific course criteria established by UC faculty. Once approved, the "a-g" course is added to the school's "a-g" course list. To satisfy the subject requirements, the course must appear on the school's course list for the year the student took the course.

    Judy Neufeld-Fernandez
    Judy Neufeld-Fernandez subscribermember

    In my day the role of the "Master Counselor" was played by the principal. Really, more layers of bureaucracy? How much pay is this "Master Counselor" raking in? S/he will assure that schools are offering A-G courses. Isn't that part of district mandated curriculum? Unbelievable.

    francesca subscriber

    "I believe in equity.", says Cindy Marten.  According to Webster, equity means "fairness and justice in the way people are being treated."

    I just noticed that 13 schools are having 'community input" meetings, to help choose a new principal, next week.  See

    Not sure if they all retired, several are too young and I don't think principals got the same financial incentive as the teachers to retire. 

    I looked over the list of principals who were in these schools last year.  If they were pressured to retire or go back to the classroom, I see the makings of an "age discrimination"  or "racial discrimination" lawsuit, based on who was targeted.

    This is the tactic the Bersin/Alvarado/Fink dictatorship used to bring everyone to their knees. No surprise, since so many Bersin retreads have been promoted by Marten.

    I wish the school board would be less of a cheer leading squad for Marten, and ask questions that begin with who, what, where, when and especially why.

    Michael Russell
    Michael Russell subscriber

    @francesca In 2012 the first group of students from the Bersin Administration began to graduate, graduation levels jumped 20%, proof that Bersin's ideas were correct. 

    francesca subscriber

    @Michael Russell 

    Thanks for the above explanation of A to G classes.  They just revamped them at last evening's meeting. (October 28, 2014)  Actually they only added a year of foreign language, but Cheryl Hibbeln seemed to be taking credit for having invented A to G...and blamed principals and teachers for any and all shortcomings. responsible for the jump of 20% in the graduation rate in 2012?  How about the innovations and policies of Cohn, Grier and Kowba...especially Kowba, who was the superintendent in 2012.

    Really hard to tell what caused the increase.  Bersin left around 2006, six years before the improvement.  So many other factors, Dropout Prevention Office brought in by Cohn and continued by Grier...many, many more.  

    DDunn subscriber

    So, let me get things right:

    Trustee Barnett is leaving (and unopposed) after his current term, supporting parent Amy Redding's run to challenge President Beiser's seat. Mr. Barrera has a second career as a labor advocate. Trustee Evans writes an article that praises the unanimous passing of a budget and placing all glory to Super Cindy Marten. Trustee Foster gets blasted by her own sub-district parents at the June 24th meeting and Mr. Beiser gets the same for missing classroom time. And finally, the acclaimed "district watchdog" Sally Smith is applauded by media for her commitment and tenacity.

    Well, with the assumption of correctness here, where is the performance...and where is the transparency? All that has happened so far is a massive restructuring (simple reassignment) of central office positions, an enormous post & bid list, re-identifying valid resource positions to lower class size, and summertime principal changes. A lot of people shuffling, again not much performance.

    1 - The A-G (once A-F) requirement have been in place for years - and if any school site wasn't supporting it, the administrator was seriously disenfranchising far too many students. Sorry, trade lovers, a carpenter's belt or a wrench doesn't quite make it these days.

    2- Mr(s). Barnett and Beiser did provide some good quality debates, but a consistent one vote dissention does get discouraging.

    3 - Mr. Barrera - make a decision and Dr. Evans' article - all puffy!! 

    4 - Ms. Foster needs some experience before taking on such a position - thank you sisters Campbell and Webber. 

    5 - Sorry attendance fans, earned sick and personal leave time is not newsworthy. Part of the contract.

    6 - The district watchdog "citizen" - applaud her resilience, but please look at the real issues.

    7 - Super Cindy Marten does need to realize that her dream-speak is appears redundant and old when there is little observable evidence of change.

    As for clarity and transparency  - where is the clear and transparent conversation regarding actual student outcomes, actual expectations of parents and community, and actual budget inequities. Where is the public involvement in the "current" teacher contract negotiations.

    As well, and possibly somewhat more immediate - if the current humanitarian issue regarding So. American refugees plays out as predicted, what's the plan?