Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 27, 2011

District eyes tougher graduation requirements

Goal is to address disparity but school board worries about 'unintended consequences'

by Chris Kenrick

With 18 percent of students graduating from the Palo Alto Unified School District unqualified to enter the University of California and California State University systems, district staff is proposing tougher high school graduation requirements.

Palo Alto has wrestled for years with an achievement gap, with lower percentages of African-American and Hispanic students taking on challenging course loads.

In the class of 2010, for example, 82 percent of all graduates had completed or exceeded the UC/CSU requirements, but only 46 percent of African-American grads and 50 percent of Hispanic grads had done so.

Many have argued the achievement gap is at least partly attributable to ingrained lower expectations for those minority students on the part of some teachers and others.

Members of the Palo Alto Board of Education reacted cautiously Tuesday to the proposal for stiffer requirements.

Raising the graduation bar "could be a significant driver of change," board member Dana Tom said. "If done right, it could be one of the best things we've done for these kids. But if not done right, it could be bad."

Board members expressed worries about possible unintended consequences of making the four-year college prep course load a condition of graduation. Under the proposal, waivers would be granted, if necessary, to students who are struggling.

Two members of the Parent Network for Students of Color spoke in favor of instituting the higher graduation bar.

Kim Bomar and Sara Woodham Johnson both said Palo Alto's current system amounts to a two-tiered structure, where many graduate with multiple advanced classes and head to top universities while others graduate ill-prepared to take care of themselves in the world in the most basic ways.

"Our reputation is based on a Tier One standard that facilitates schools to provide an education that equips our children to apply to the best of the best," Woodham Johnson said.

"I moved to Palo Alto for exactly that reason.

"But now that I'm here the system disturbs me greatly, because for 18 percent of the students, this same system leaves children behind and they're not qualified to apply to the most obvious state schools."

Other California school districts, including large ones such as Los Angeles Unified, have adopted or plan to implement the so-called A-G graduation requirements. All of those districts have some form of waiver system, district staff members said.

The majority of parents and teachers speaking Tuesday urged the board to move slowly on the A-G issue.

"We absolutely endorse higher expectations," said teacher Trina Gogarty, president of the teachers' union Palo Alto Educators Association.

"But it will be tainted if students aren't able to graduate or graduate with a diploma stamped with a waiver."

Board members said they had too many unanswered questions to proceed at this time. A major concern was whether a student obtaining a waiver of the tougher requirements would end up carrying what amounts to a black mark on his or her diploma.

Rather than scheduling a vote on the proposal for June, as had been planned, Superintendent Kevin Skelly said he will return to the board this fall with more information.

In particular, he said he will research why some students are not currently fulfilling the A-G requirements and how the district would implement the tougher graduation requirements should they be adopted.

"I don't think there's any way forward except raising the expectations for the system and the students in it to achieve," Skelly said.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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