SF schools gear up for tough graduation standards

By: Jill Tucker, Chronicle Staff Writer

As seniors, Lincoln's Vania Valle (left), Jessica Garrett, 
Kimberley Medrano and Andreana Kalaveras - shown 
with counselor Maria Martinez - don't face the tougher 
The pressure is on San Francisco's current crop of high school sophomores, who have less than three years now to pass a rigorous curriculum required for admission by the University of California and California State University.

The class of 2014 is the first in the San Francisco school district to be told they must complete 15 college-prep courses - ranging from algebra to lab science to visual arts - to earn a diploma.

It means that all 4,300 sophomores in the class that started high school last year are on the college track whether they saw themselves as college-bound or not.

The idea is to give every student a clear path to college and the help to get there.

"Whether or not to go to college should be a student's choice, not a failure on our part to prepare our students," Superintendent Carlos Garcia said when the policy passed in 2008.

The question is whether the district can succeed.

New urgency

Last year, about 550 freshmen flunked algebra and 650 failed English. Both subjects lay the groundwork for the three more years of English as well as geometry and algebra II now needed to graduate.
"There's urgency in keeping kids on track and supporting that," said Lincoln High School Principal Barnaby Payne.
The district is among just a few urban districts in the state to require students to pass the college-prep sequence known as A-G courses. San Jose Unified was the first to do so in 2003.

In San Francisco, that meant the district had to add two years of foreign language to the previous requirement of one as well as a third year of math through algebra II, instead of two.

In years past, a student could fail a handful of classes and still graduate. Now, more than two F's in required classes will send a student looking for a way to make up the courses outside the regular school day. Although the universities don't accept a D grade in the classes, the district still considers the grade passing, barely.

Knowing students would have very little room for failure, board members raised concerns when the policy passed in 2008 that the new requirements would lead to a higher dropout rate because students would give up if they failed too many courses and couldn't graduate on time.

To see that didn't happen, the district started flagging struggling students as they came out of the eighth grade - those with a grade point average below 2.0 and a high absentee rate.

For the class of 2014, 232 kids were identified as needing help.

"From the school sites' standpoint, there's really no time to waste," Payne said. "We start students on the A-G path right away."