'This Is a Systemic Failure'

Education

'This Is a Systemic Failure'

San Diego Unified will be engaged in a kind of short-term triage for the next year and a half to help the many students who aren’t on track to meet strict new graduation requirements. Simultaneously, it will need to rebuild the system.

For the first time in years, San Diego Unified has stripped naked. And right now, it’s not sure whether it should be proud or ashamed.

This week, the district published a long-awaited report of just how many students are on track to meet beefed-up graduation requirements it set for the class of 2016. Those requirements, a series of college-prep classes known as A-G courses, must be completed in order for students to be eligible for University of California and California State University schools.

The results are jarring: 41 percent of high school juniors don’t have the credits they need to be considered on track. Blacks, Latinos, students learning English and students with special needs are even further behind.

In a presentation the district delivered at this week’s school board meeting, staff couched the data by pointing out the numbers don’t bear out the many students who are doing just fine on other required components for graduation.

For example, in addition to the 15 required A-G courses, students must take a certain number of credits in other areas, like electives and PE. They need to pass a high school exit exam, which they take as sophomores, and must show that their computer skills are proficient. Their overall high school GPA must be at least 2.0.

The district argues that students are doing well when it comes to the other requirements, so focusing solely on the A-G deficiencies is misleading. But that’s a distinction without a difference – like botching the parallel parking portion of driver’s test that requires a perfect score. It doesn’t matter whether you aced left-hand turns and changing lanes.

The bottom line is that A-G courses are going to be a graduation requirement, so if juniors haven’t passed a certain number of them by now, they’re off track.

“I think there are people who will be very encouraged by this report, and I think there will be people who are horrified by this report. And I think both of those groups are correct,” trustee John Lee Evans said at the board meeting.

It’s true that more students are taking and passing college prep courses than ever before.

That validates the school board’s 2011 decision to raise the bar on graduation requirements. It’s also a win for Alliance San Diego, a group of social justice-minded advocates that pressured the board to adopt the policy in the first place.

Yet the district’s overall progress has been negligible. Two years ago, 50 percent of juniors were on track to meet A-G requirements. Now, a year and a half before the big deadline, that number is only 59 percent.

Of course, we can’t draw a line from the number of students currently off track to those who won’t graduate in 2016.

Between now and then, the district will scramble to revise kids’ school schedules and make sure students will be offered the courses they need. Extended school days are being considered, and summer school will surely expand this year. Students will be able to make up credits by taking online classes.

Cheryl Hibbeln, a former all-star principal at Kearny High, was promoted last summer to high school resources officer. She’ll comb through schools’ schedules and make sure all principals know exactly what classes they’ll need to offer to get kids out the door on time.

Why this hasn’t happened until now, Hibbeln can’t say. Apparently, nobody can.

“This isn’t a finger-point thing,” said district spokesperson Ursula Kroemer. “It’s a systemic problem.”

Hibbeln put it more bluntly. “This is a systemic failure.”

How We Got Here

Hibbeln has a unique vision of the playing field; she’s now overseeing the work of the same principals she used to work alongside. That vision allows her to recognize the problems and understand why they happen.

The biggest problem: “We are not all aligned in the choices that we make for kids,” said Hibbeln.

Some of the current disarray is the result of years of leadership turnover in San Diego Unified. Since 2005, the district has been led by four superintendents, each with his or her own agenda. The transitions haven’t been seamless.

Hibbeln came up under Alan Bersin, the former superintendent most remembered for his heavy-handed oversight. Bersin’s was a centralized administration; alignment was a priority. After he left, schools could do more of their own thing.

But decentralization carried collateral consequences – namely, a lack of oversight.

“Before [Superintendent Cindy Marten] came on, there wasn’t a lot of accountability on (principals). We should have been doing these things ourselves, but we just got so lost in the minutiae of daily operations,” said Hibbeln.

Here are some of the ways Hibbeln says this has played out:

• A-G requirements stipulate that students take two years of a foreign language. Some middle schools offer language classes, some don’t. That means that some students enter high school with one or both years of their language requirements out of the way. Other students don’t have access to foreign language classes until their junior year.

• Under A-G, kids must have three years of high school math. But some high schools have placed kids in Algebra, even if they’ve passed algebra in middle school. The fact that students are being asked to repeat courses indicates schools don’t trust the work of their colleagues in the grades below them, Hibbeln said.

• Thirteen schools still offer Unifying Algebra, a kind of watered-down math course that doesn’t count toward the new graduation requirements.

• Students who’ve earned Ds – a passing grade in San Diego Unified but not for entrance to UC/CSU schools – are placed in summer school so they can retake the class for a higher score. But summer school space is limited, and in some cases the kids remediating Ds are taking up spaces that could be used by the kids who need to make up for Fs.

Many of these oversights manifest in the sheer number of students failing classes. Of the roughly 3,000 students who are currently behind on graduation requirements, about 45 percent of them have missed more than a semester because they got an F.

Last year, more than 1,600 students retook classes through iHigh Virtual Academy, an online option for students who need to recover credits. That number doesn’t count the kids making up credits in other ways, like summer school.

All this means that the district will be engaged in a kind of short-term triage for the next year and a half. Not an ideal place to be. Schools will create 1.5 year plans and target resources to the students who need to get out the door in 2016.

Simultaneously, the district will need to rebuild the system, including retooling the way it schedules classes, and make sure all schools are on the same page.

Better data reporting will be required from schools, so principals and counselors can understand in real time how well students are doing. Toward that end, the district’s working on an early warning system, which it hopes to launch in December.

If students are having problems with attendance, academics or behavior, they will be flagged so teachers and counselors can find ways to help.

That means that if the district is going to fix the deeper problems the recent report highlights, everyone – from grade school teachers to high school principals – is going to have to contribute.

“If high schools are the only ones responsible for this effort we’re going to be in a constant state of triage,” Hibbeln said.

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