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San Diego Unified High School Graduation Rates Higher Than Expected

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.

San Diego Unified says it's on track to set a record for the highest high school graduation rate among the state's five largest districts.

San Diego Unified says it's on track to set a record for the highest high school graduation rate among the state's five largest districts. The announcement comes just two months after the Public Policy Institute of California warned that the district was expected to graduate about 20 percent fewer students under more stringent graduation requirements.

Cheryl Hibbeln, who oversees secondary schools for San Diego Unified, told the school board on Tuesday that 92 percent of high school seniors in the district are expected to graduate this year, compared to 89.7 percent in 2014.

Those students are the first required to complete all seven courses needed to get into the state's public universities as a condition of graduation, meaning the class of 2016 is also the district's most qualified to meet the requirements.

“San Diego is changing the education conversation in the State of California by showing you can raise graduation standards and graduate more students at the same time," Superintendent Cindy Marten said in a news release Wednesday. "The fact that it is our children leading this change — by stepping up to meet the challenge — makes me incredibly hopeful for the future."

Marten said sharing data and working with Alliance San Diego and researchers in the San Diego Education Research Alliance at UC San Diego helped the district rise to the challenge.

Those researchers were the ones who combed district records and concluded in the PPIC report many students were three semesters behind as of August 2015 on completing the required seven courses. Martin said early reporting from the researchers informed district efforts to add online courses and expand summer school for students needing to make up courses.

The district also added counselors to closely track the more than 6,000 students in the class of 2016.

"We literally have been tracking kids student by student, school by school, and watching exactly what's been happening," Hibbeln said. "We were at the schools working with the principals to see: Are they in the coursework that they need? Are they getting the intervention that they need?"

San Diego Unified is among several large school districts, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland, to recently make college preparatory courses mandatory for graduation.

The new requirements included making compulsory two consecutive years of a foreign language or passing a native-language test — the number of students taking and passing the test increased fourfold over last year — a year of visual and performing arts, and intermediate algebra or an equal third-year math class. Students must also earn a 2.0 grade point average.

San Francisco, which consistently has some of the highest achievement rates in the state, saw a significant drop in graduation rates after the new graduation requirements began, a fact that also informed the PPIC report predicting fewer graduates in San Diego. The authors of the report could not immediately be reached for comment on Wednesday.

Data on how students of color and English language-learners fared under the new requirements is expected in June, but Marten said gains were seen across all communities. She added that she expects the success to continue for future senior classes.

"We don't believe we just did something for 2016 and just check it off and now it's done," she said. "We're building a system that knows how to operate in a way that produces graduates that are ready for the workforce of tomorrow."

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