Board cautious on stiffer graduation criteria

Members worry about 'unintended consequences' of raising the bar

Members of the Palo Alto Board of Education Tuesday reacted cautiously to a proposal to stiffen high school graduation requirements.

The goal of the staff proposal is to boost expectations, particularly for the 18 percent of Palo Alto students who now graduate without completing all the prerequisites for the University of California and California State University systems, known as the A-G requirements.

But 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.

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."

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 A-G 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.

Two members of the Parent Network for Students of Color testified 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 districts such as Los Angeles Unified School District, have adopted or plan to implement the A-G graduation requirements. All of those districts have some form of waiver system, district staff members said.

The majority of parents and teachers testifying 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.


Posted by palo alto mom, a resident of Southgate
on May 25, 2011 at 7:34 am

FYI to contextualize, San Jose Unified, East Side Union (SJ), San Francisco Unified, San Diego Unified, Oakland Unified and Los Angeles Unified have all adopted A-G alignment. Palo Alto is catching up to this standard, with the luxury that we already have high rates in this area except in under-served groups. College readiness alignment is part of a national trend based on Achieve Inc.'s American Diploma Project, which the State of California joined in 2008. Many states have already implemented college-ready graduation requirements. Achieve was created by state governors and business leaders to help raise academic standards to enable college and workplace readiness. According to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, "We focus on high school graduation and college-readiness rates because they define life options for young people and reflect deep inequities in American society and education." The Silicon Valley Education Foundation and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation also advocate A-G alignment. A-G as the default requirement, with an opt-out option, as proposed in Palo Alto, is essentially becoming the standard.

Posted by Perspective, a resident of Meadow Park
on May 25, 2011 at 7:58 am

Palo Alto Mom, that is precisely what you already posted. I know you want to raise the standards for graduation, but all that the rest of us are saying is...

1) Make it clear what is needed, even make it the default position for courses, for completion of the highest level UC requirements so no kid hits their senior year then finds out they aren't prepared for UC applications..Our schools have MORE than enough opportunity to take MORE than enough of every subject the highest notch universities in the nation want them to take. Not a problem.


2) Make it an option for those people clearly not on the college track to get a basic high school degree WITH a vocational, employable component.

Don't force many bright but not college bound kids to drop out of high school from lack of option for them.

Not all folks are made for university while in high school. Some become ready later, after high school, and "catch up"..great for them. Some never will be ready for a 4 year degree. We do a disservice to a great many kids who graduate high school, feeling stupid and worthless, because they aren't going to a 4 year university degree, when we could be graduating them with a useful skill to jump start them in a vocation for their lives.

Someone has to build the roads, houses, wiring, cars, bicycles, grow and transport the food, work the stores, restaurants, cut the trees, put out fires, police the streets, etc. Not everyone is meant for nor happy about going to college.

We need to honor and support all the people who make our society run.
We need to remember we are all valuable.

Posted by Perspective, a resident of Meadow Park
on May 25, 2011 at 8:02 am

To keep it simple:

Make a "tougher" full A-G courseload the default, so that kids have to purposefully opt out of the track in order to not achieve it, but don't make it a requirement with an assumption of "stupid" for those who have to purposefully "waiver" themselves out of it.

Choices, we are about choices for people's lives. We are not only a college prep district.

Posted by justanidea, a resident of Palo Verde
on May 25, 2011 at 8:23 am

Why can not our schools set another path for those kids who have opted out of this uc,csu system with the path that can lead them to community colleges where they can learn vocational skills and if they find they are ready for uc,they can always transfer later.They can learn nurse dental assistant or other skills while in high schools via attending those community colleges.

Posted by Ann, a resident of Jordan Middle School
on May 25, 2011 at 8:33 am

I see this as a problem. If the district wants the kids to have 4 years of English 3 years of Math 2 years of a Foreign Language plus other student services and activities.... this is a bit much. Education should be enjoyable and not forced. Foreign language should be offered starting in kindergarden. No wonder the kids chose to end their lives with so much expectation and criteria. Don't get me wrong I think children should be college ready, but not all students are the same and everyones destiny is different... I emplore the board to think twice and cut once.

Concerned Pausd parent,

Posted by Marielena G-M, a resident of Midtown
on May 25, 2011 at 8:35 am

This is another way to raise stress in our students lives, especially the ones who have different learning abilities. I though the district was trying to lower academic stress. Instead of adopting this, the district needs to make sure that ALL students are on the right track to college without raising the bar.

Posted by Glad to be done with HS, a resident of Gunn High School
on May 25, 2011 at 8:44 am

Skelly admitted last night that this "lane" does not work for the bright kids who want to go into art, theater and music. And those art and music programs are part of 4 year colleges and VERY hard to get into. This one size fits all approach is not what is good for even the brightest kids. Do we want to kill our performing arts departments? Forget about taking 4 years of theater or orchestra!

Posted by justanidea, a resident of Palo Verde
on May 25, 2011 at 9:01 am

I have seen a lot of high schools outsidfe USA, they put their high school kids into seperate paths. The first one is for science and engineering path, the other is for social science and arts path,the rest is focused on the vocational skills path,so while at graduation, everyone can have his goal set clear.I have heard in a foreign country,right now the first two path are so over-crowded that somehow people in hiring position are really paying attention the the last one,because those kids are strong in hand-on experiences to solve everyday problem, some are paid much more higher than those kids with first two choise even though they did not attend any colleges.

Posted by Perspective, a resident of Meadow Park
on May 25, 2011 at 9:47 am

Justanidea: I used to be very opposed to the 'laning' in Europe you are referring to...however, with age and wisdom, I have seen that it is really true, there really are folks who ARE bright, but truly are NOT going to college or at least not a 4 year college after high school..

for which I am very grateful.

BTW, I learned that the lowest level city tree cutter in a local city makes as much, plus much better benefits, than a almost any BA college degree..

Need smart tree cutters who don't fall trees onto homes, cars and people as much as we need smart physicists.

A lot of wisdom in your post.

Posted by Missing the Point, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on May 25, 2011 at 10:10 am

I think the point of these requirements is to force districts to address the achievement gap. If you look at San Jose's efforts on this for the last 15 years, it is all about raising the results for their Latino students. We have an achievement gap in PA as well, and this seems like a meaningful tool to help address it.

Posted by justanidea, a resident of Palo Verde
on May 25, 2011 at 10:39 am

I get your point now,just like Dana Tom said,the schools need to find a better way for the rest of the kids who do not want to go to this path with the majority of our students .

Posted by parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 25, 2011 at 10:41 am

Good on PAUSD for not be trying to raise the performance of a small group (5% African american adn Latino) on the backs of a larger group (10% who are not meeting requirements). That is what this resolution sought to do because all of the stakeholders were not included in the process from the start. The whole thing was started in our district before the suicide cluster and the magnification of the academic stress issue occured. It is much more relevant in districts which do not already have 85% meeting A-G. Thank you to the school board for understanding this issue so well.

Posted by palo alto mom, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 25, 2011 at 10:52 am

BTW - all this concern is for a total of 36 students of color who did not complete the A-G requirements in 2010. Seems like a little overkill. Has anyone talked to those students to find out what we could have done better for them? That seems like a better way to address the achievement gap than changing the requirements for all 12000 kids.

Posted by justanidea, a resident of Palo Verde
on May 25, 2011 at 10:52 am

Ok,I get the full picture. The schools want to send every capable and every possible kid to our good UC and CSU if those kids want to attend.It is not a bad idea provided the schools do not lower our academic standard.

Posted by parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 25, 2011 at 11:37 am

Dangerous to some who might miss graduating though.

Posted by justanidea, a resident of Palo Verde
on May 25, 2011 at 11:42 am

That is why the alternative paths are so important.

Posted by Denese, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 25, 2011 at 12:00 pm

All of this is fine, but where is the support services.
You keep adding languages and ESL classes, what about support services for these classes. Why not hire a support person to work evenings that can speak english and tutor students. I am sorry but what little support Paly has is done by individuls whose english is broken and some kids just don't go because they become frustrated trying to understand the subject and the broken english. this is not racist but a fact.

visit the support service center for your self.

Posted by justanidea, a resident of Palo Verde
on May 25, 2011 at 12:17 pm

With the last 1-2% bottom students,they should be allowed to grauduate in next year,if they can pass the basic exam,thus they can focus on their goals and skills which are more important than colleges and scores to them.

Posted by Misha, a resident of Midtown
on May 25, 2011 at 1:42 pm

If some students are not meeting graduation requirements, their specific needs should be identified and addressed, to the extent possible. Just raising the bar does not fix this problem if they could not even meet the lower bar.

Another approach to implementing A-G is to ensure that every freshman and their parents are properly informed of the A-G requirements so that they can plan the student's high school curriculum accordingly, if they so choose.

The important part here is, if they so choose.

Posted by justanidea, a resident of Palo Verde
on May 25, 2011 at 3:05 pm

I did not know our schools have been doing this amazing jobs making most of our schools' kids ready for colleges(85% very high).No wonder everyone outside of our city wants to move in with their school-aged kids.

Posted by Glad to be done with HS, a resident of Gunn High School
on May 25, 2011 at 3:59 pm

Of the school districts listed in an earlier post: only San Jose Unified has implemented the A-G requirement for graduation--all the rest are planning for it and some have pushed out the date because of the heavy expense of making this work. The rest with the implementation dates are: "The five, with the dates affecting graduating seniors, are San Diego Unified (2016), East Side Union (2015), Oakland Unified (2015), San Francisco Unified (2014) and Los Angeles Unified (2012)"

Both San Jose and San Francisco are in VERY different situations than PAUSD--they started with only about 30% of all of their students were taking and passing the A-G requirements. We have about 85%--very different problem.

see link to article: Web Link
This reports gives info on San Jose Unified:
"San Jose Unified reports that its dropout rate has not fallen, while its A-G completion rate has risen from about 30 percent in 1998 to 47 percent of the class of 2008, compared with the statewide rate of 35 percent. The percentage of Latinos in the district satisfying the A-G requirements was 29 percent, compared with 22 percent statewide."

Posted by Maya, a resident of Stanford
on May 26, 2011 at 6:03 am

Changing to a one-size fits all model would mean that someone would actually have to help all of the children meet these requirements. Currently this simply does not happen. Palo Alto USD has set it up so that students struggle under the best of circumstances as well as the worst. Their struggles are different, but they all struggle. Whether it be maintaining that 4.6 GPA or trying to pass Algebra 1, they struggle. I thought Palo Alto USD's new direction was one of fostering well being, and reassuring kids that there is a place in this world for everyone. Did I blink and the focus changed?

Posted by Cresenda, a resident of Barron Park
on May 26, 2011 at 6:10 am

There is no ESL class for the kid now so they can't prepare for the harder work of the middle school and high school.

Posted by Perspective, a resident of Meadow Park
on May 26, 2011 at 10:44 am

Well, Maya: I disagree in one sense. I don't believe it is the function of the school district to be mandated to "help" every kid meet the requirements. That is up to parents. The job of the school is to provide the education, the opportunity to move forward in life, it is not the job to get every student to the same outcome.

However, if you mean that a one size fits all model would mean that many teens would drop out, ..we agree. I would prefer to put the effort into offering non-college bound, but bright, teens an educational option that puts them on a path other than asking "do you want fries with that"...

I know the demand is not high..this is Palo Alto where virtually any and all kids are expected to plan on going to college of some sort afterwards, so I know that it is hard to offer much in the way of choices. But a good start is to allow a basic high school degree that allows the teen time to apprentice, for example, with an industry master s/he is interested in pursuing, or partner with a tech/voc school to allow the teen to graduate high school and be ready or nearly ready to enter the work force.

I can imagine a basic high school degree with 2 years English, history, science, math, for example, and the last 2 years being geared toward completing an apprenticeship with carpentry, auto, large animal management at a ranch or barn, ..or for those a bit more academically inclined, dental assiting, medical assistant, computer tech, ..

well, you have the idea. Something other than "you aren't going to college? You are too stupid to have a high school degree from PAUSD"..better to have "You aren't college bound? Where are you bound, let us partner with you and your parents to get there".

If you were a member and logged in you could track comments from this story.

Post a comment

Posting an item on Town Square is simple and requires no registration. Just complete this form and hit "submit" and your topic will appear online. Please be respectful and truthful in your postings so Town Square will continue to be a thoughtful gathering place for sharing community information and opinion. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

We prefer that you use your real name, but you may use any "member" name you wish.

Name: *

Select your neighborhood or school community: * Not sure?

Comment: *

Verification code: *
Enter the verification code exactly as shown, using capital and lowercase letters, in the multi-colored box.

*Required Fields

Touring the Southern California “Ivies:” Pomona and Cal Tech
By John Raftrey and Lori McCormick | 5 comments | 2,907 views

Chai Brisket
By Laura Stec | 5 comments | 2,081 views

Couples: Parallel Play or Interactive Play?
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,232 views

Sometimes "I'm Sorry" Doesn't Cut It
By Cheryl Bac | 7 comments | 1,177 views

SJSU Center for Steinbeck Studies to Honor Author Khaled Hosseini on Weds Sept 10
By Nick Taylor | 0 comments | 728 views