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San Diego Unified Has Always Lost Seniors; Here’s How It Plans To Keep Them

Graduation caps are thrown in the air, May 17, 2009.

Credit: Shilad Sen / Flickr

Above: Graduation caps are thrown in the air, May 17, 2009.

When San Diego Unified announced 91.2 percent of the class of 2016 graduated, some scratched their heads. The number was unexpectedly high — this was the first class required to complete all of the courses needed to get into a state college and it set a new record for the district.

The news nonprofit Voice of San Diego was one of those head scratchers and found more than 100 struggling students from the class of 2016 leftsome encouraged by staff — for new districts and charter schools. Per state practice, they weren’t factored into the graduation rate. It looked a bit nefarious for a district with a lot at stake.

But a report released this week by UC San Diego’s San Diego Education Research Alliance, a group that works with the district but remains independent, suggests there was nothing nefarious about it. Though the graduation rate would have been 80.3 percent were they included, a similar number of seniors were leaving the district before the new graduation requirements, called A-G.

“The class of 2015 wasn’t under this requirement to complete A-G. The class of 2016 was, and the percent leaving was about the same,” said SanDERA Director Julian Betts. “The grade point average of those leaving in both years was about the same — halfway through a ‘C’ and ‘D’ average.”

The report says about 10 percent of seniors left district-managed schools in 2015 and 2016. Half went to other districts and half enrolled in charter schools.

So what is the district doing to stop this trend? Superintendent Cindy Marten said in an interview the strategies it used to push most in the class of 2016 across the finish line will help.

“We know that the changes we’ve made in terms of opportunity, access, equity and excellence are changes that capture the attention of students who school was something they came,” Marten said. “Now they’re excited about their learning.”

She said the systems the district put in place to achieve its high graduation rate allow it to take an individualized approach to interventions. Closer tracking of students trigger early warning signals, which deploy counselors or the district’s “reconnection center” to get students back on track. That might mean tweaking a student’s schedule or having a heart-to-heart about what a student wants to achieve and placing him or her in a program to match.

“We’ve put in programs and supports to reconnect students to the high school and find out, ‘What makes learning work for you?’” Marten said. “We have our maker labs and we have pathways that students are really interested in. There’s a media design pathway, and the culinary arts pathway, and the science, technology, medical pathways.”

The district also developed efficiencies to help students bypass classes they did not need or accelerate their progress. It allowed students who speak multiple languages to test out of the foreign language requirement so they could better use their time. It invested heavily in summer school. And it offered online classes to help students catch up.

Betts said all of those strategies helped a third of students who weren’t expected to graduate at the start of their senior year make the final push. But he recommended the district take measures to ensure students are not cheating their way through the online classes. It is a common concern among educators nationwide and something some students and teachers suggested was happening to Voice of San Diego.

“We’re continually redesigning how we offer programs, supports and services so (students) stay in our schools,” Marten said.

She added the achievement of African-American and Latino students under these new supports is proof of their promise for struggling students. The number of African-American and Latino students completing the A-G requirements with a “C” or better grew about 15 percentage points each between the 2013-2014 and 2015-2016 school years, according to the district. That is compared to a growth rate of 7.5 percentage points for white students and 11.7 percentage points for the district altogether.

About 10 percent of seniors in the class of 2016 left district-managed schools. Contrary to suspicions they were pushed out to boost the district's graduation rate, seniors have always been leaving.

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