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School Board Looks at Increasing High School Graduation Requirements

Trustees will vote on graduation requirements, beginning with the class of 2016, with an eye on raising them to meet eligibility requirements for the UC and CSU systems.

Once again, a large crowd turned out for the regular meeting of the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) Board of Education on Tuesday night. This time, however, the hot-button topic was not school calendars; rather, it was a passionate discussion over whether the district should increase graduation requirements for high school students, in an effort to ensure a higher percentage of students will graduate “college ready.”

Specifically, the board suggests that and high schools should make “A-G” requirements mandatory for all students, beginning with the graduating class of 2016, which will start school in fall 2012.

“A-G” refers to the requirements held by both the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) systems to make a student eligible for admission. It sets forth a minimum number of years students must take in various subjects—known as the “A-G” subjects—such as English, world languages, mathematics, laboratory science, visual and performing arts, and history and social sciences.

Per the district’s proposal, students would have to complete every requirement in “A-G” with a grade of C-minus or higher.

The proposal also suggested that waivers would be available to some students—however, what the criteria would be for receiving such as waiver was an area of confusion and concern for many at the meeting.

PAUSD Superintendent Kevin Skelly prefaced the night’s discussion by talking about the motivation behind the proposal—preparing students for an increasingly competitive job market in today’s economy and helping to close the gap in opportunities for minority students.

“The gap between students who are well-educated and well-trained, and those who are not, is growing,” he said, suggesting that the number of jobs available to students without a college degree is limited, particularly in the Bay Area. “We have a responsibility to our students.”

Skelly introduced Debbra Lindo, the district’s director of secondary education, who presented the board with an update on how the district is progressing toward its goals for the number of students who are college-ready and explained the proposal of officially adopting “A-G” as the district standard.

Lindo explained that a strategic initiative was adopted in the district in 2008. It included the goals of getting 85 percent of students eligible upon graduation to enter a UC or CSU school, and of increasing the number of minority students who are college-ready upon graduation to 50 percent, by the year 2012.

Lindo’s presentation indicated that the district has already made great strides toward these goals.

In 2009, 75 percent of Gunn graduates and 76 percent of Paly graduates finished high school college-ready; in 2010, the totals were 87 percent of Gunn graduates and 83 percent of Paly graduates.

“So we haven’t completely met our goal, but we’re very close,” said Lindo.

As far as minority groups, the totals for various races such as Hispanics and African Americans ranged from approximately 38-50 percent.

However, overall, on average, 80 percent of students were graduating one or two classes short of the “A-G” requirements.

Lindo said that when the topic of making “A-G” the standard for graduation was discussed with district teachers, several concerns were brought up.

Some teachers said they worried that they may have to lower their standards in order to keep up with additional requirements, or to avoid having any students score lower than a “C-minus.” Others said they worried about hurting the self-esteem of students who will require a waiver from the “A-G” requirements in order to graduate.

Some said that they worried that some students would struggle too much with a requirement like Algebra 2. Others wondered how much the district’s summer school programs would have to be revised to accommodate a larger number of students needing to make up missed courses or re-take courses in which they got a “D” grade or lower.

Lindo remained optimistic that PAUSD could adopt the new requirements and be successful at them, and she pressed upon the board how important she thought it was to ensure that local youth go on in life possessing the wealth of opportunities that being college-ready upon graduation would afford them.

“I am confident that Palo Alto will not overdo it and will do it better than everyone else,” she said.

When it came time for board members to comment on their opinion of the proposal, many spoke of their concerns over what the higher requirements would mean for lower-achieving students—would those who felt “A-G” were out of their reach feel compelled to drop out? Would a student who didn’t fully complete the requirements be denied graduation?

Board member Barbara Klausner asked, what if a traditional college degree is not the path a student wants to take in their life?

“I love the idea [of adopting “A-G”], but is it the right bar to set for most students? Maybe not for that student who dreams of going to culinary school,” Klausner said. “But, I agree with Dr. Skelly in that [requiring “A-G”] does help set a standard and a foundation for any student who has goals of [going on and being successful in life].”

Klausner said her two biggest areas of concern were what the criteria for receiving a waiver would be and what to do about students who can’t grasp one of the harder courses, like Algebra 2 or geometry, who keep getting grades below the minimum.

“No student can graduate with an ‘A-G’ grade lower than a C-minus? That’s really setting the bar high,” she said.

Skelly responded by saying, “I don’t see us not approving a waiver for a student that at least meets the California state minimum requirements for graduation. I don’t see us saying to a student, ‘OK, you’ve taken this class twice and not passed; maybe it’s time for you to drop out.’”

Board president Melissa Baten-Caswell asked, where’s the rollout plan?

“I’m nervous to vote for something like this to start in a specific year, when I haven’t seen the rollout plan, and I’m not sure the rollout plan would be ready in time.”

Many members of the community addressed the board with their feelings on the issue.

Some said it was yet another blow to student stress.

“This sends a message that our schools are tough, and now we’re going to make them even tougher,” one parent said. “We should make ‘A-G’ a student’s default path but not a graduation requirement. When a student doesn’t meet the default requirements, it is discussed with parent, teacher and student together. That would satisfy your goal.”

Others remarked that the board should not vote on the issue until the criteria for receiving a waiver is spelled out, implicitly, and until a plan for the 15 percent of students who already are not meeting the requirements is devised.

“I think we need to figure out who this 15 percent of students are—why they didn’t meet the ‘A-G’ requirements, why they dropped out or were transferred to alternative programs,” said Diane Gleason, a math teacher in the district. “What’s going on there? I think giving this only two weeks and then voting on it is really premature."

It appeared the board and Skelly agreed. Although a vote had been planned on the issue for the June 14 meeting, it was decided that research into the matter should continue through the fall.

Amy Zucker Morgenstern May 25, 2011 at 02:17 PM
Not everyone wants to go to college at all, much less the UCs or CSUs. My hope for each child (including my own) is that they find their vocation and acquire the skills to enter it. As Ms. Klausner says, maybe that will mean culinary school. Maybe it will mean apprenticing with a skilled cabinetmaker. I would hope that Palo Alto would respect these paths and help students prepare for them, rather than requiring them to waste time in college-prep classes. Rather than the schools directing everyone toward one narrow goal, I would prefer them to put their resources into expanding the course offerings; treat them all as the honorable work they are instead of as fallbacks; and have guidance counselors who explain thoroughly to students and parents what requirements they need for various paths, including college at a UC/CSU. It is also extremely important that the schools encourage ALL students to follow the path they choose, especially African American and Latino students who want to go to college. Then those who must complete the A-Gs can concentrate on those. Looking at the course catalogs, it's already clear that the resources for non-college paths are badly shortchanged. There's no mention in the Gunn catalog of "wood," "tools," "clay," "metal," "machine," "sewing." There is ONE automotive technology course. How are the talented mechanics of tomorrow supposed to discover their passion and develop their craft? Drop out of high school?
Carol Gilbert May 25, 2011 at 03:59 PM
That was the standard set when I went to San Mateo High School in the 50's, IF you were on the College Prep track. At that time there were two other tracks: General and Commercial. Now we somehow consider everyone in the same tank swimming along--even if their goals are very different. Not sure that A-G should be the norm for everyone, but those who feel they are college-bound should definitely commit to those standards.
Carol Gilbert May 25, 2011 at 04:02 PM
We do a very poor job of preparing kids for anything but an illustrious college career. What a shame when we did away with industrial arts, etc. I'm all for bringing back the higher A-G standard and also preparing students in alternative ways as well. As for the C- standard, good grief, you can either pass that coursework or not.
Jennifer van der Kleut May 25, 2011 at 04:11 PM
To Amy and Carol - thank you for sharing your thoughts. You certainly aren't alone in your opinion, many people at the meeting expressed similar feelings.
Rami Madan May 25, 2011 at 04:15 PM
First the board needs to focus on listening to Dr. Pope of Stanford and implement the project based assignments instead of the traditional homework to help students develop better learning skills and practical way of problem solving. Second, teachers need to update themselves and work with such methods and not be stuck in the mode of 40 years past. Third: Switch to 6 day block schedule. It works like a charm and is most suited with the new technology and project based assignments. In addition UC/Cal State consider only 4 AP courses for GPA calculation. Same should be done while assigning Deciles . This way peer pressure of taking too many AP/Chem Hons. courses will be reduced and create a better load. Goal should be not just to make students academically college ready but also to make them Life ready. Implement a supplemental after school subject assistance program with qualified instructors to help students make C-. 215 credits are required to graduate. Why are students being pushed to take over 250. Offer alternative programs for credits where students can learn a trade or specific skill which interests them by using local area organizations to help in this. Many of the groups you mentioned who are behind have families with less educated people and low income. Provide students with additional help and resources. Waiver criteria must be specified and no child should be left behind. Good goal, please do it the right way. Less stress, happier kids, better career. Thanks. RSM
Jennifer van der Kleut May 25, 2011 at 05:10 PM
UPDATE - The board and Superintendent Skelly have decided to postpone the vote until the fall in order to examine the issue further.
Ryan Teves May 26, 2011 at 01:01 PM
I love the above comments, and to take them a step further, school board members profess the importance of curriculum and content they themselves don't use or need. What a cool experiment to give the members of the board the final exam from an algebra 2 class and see how many pass. It is easy to keep demanding more from kids... as long as the adults making the demands are in a lofty position. 80% of all jobs in America, including the majority of the blossoming "green" careers, don't require a college degree, but we assume that 100% of kids will obtain one. How absurd. Ryan Teves author of "In Defense of the American Teen."

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