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Santa Rosa teachers call for pause in more rigorous graduation requirements amid failing grades

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A change in graduation requirements nearly two years ago at Santa Rosa schools to better prepare all high school students for college has put at least 20% of sophomores in jeopardy of not graduating on time.

The union representing more than 900 of the school district’s teachers now is calling on the board of Santa Rosa City Schools to change direction, at least temporarily and work on a more comprehensive college readiness strategy.

The Santa Rosa Teachers Association is asking for a two-year break on a policy adopted in April 2018 that required every incoming freshman to embark on a more rigorous college preparatory class track toward a University of California system school or California State University — a standard already in place at more than half of the state’s school districts.

Santa Rosa students now have to take a third year of math and second year of foreign language instead of two electives, under the so-called A-G requirements. And they can no longer exclusively take “regular” classes on a graduation path that would qualify them for a vocational school or community college.

The school board is holding a special meeting on Jan. 29 to assess the rollout of the new course requirements, and decide whether emergency action is needed to support students who have been struggling under the upgraded class standards.

Assistant Superintendent Anna-Maria Guzman said school district staff are presenting the board with two possible options: a one-year pause or a waiver that would help students stay on track to graduate. If the school board chose to go that route, it will have the final say on the specifics of the waiver, Guzman said.

According to data from Santa Rosa City Schools, 42% of freshmen students have earned a D or F in the second semester of a now-required integrated math course, grades that nullified the first math credit for a college prep diploma.

As fall grades for the current school year are being compiled, educators in Sonoma County’s largest school district fear 1 out of 5 sophomores will have to take remedial courses in the summer or online to meet the new math requirements and remain on track to graduate in two more years.

“If we don’t allow these sophomores to graduate the old way … we’re going to need a whole other Ridgway (continuation school),” said Will Lyon, president of the teachers’ union.

The switch to the more rigorous academic requirements began with the freshman class in the 2018-19 school year, and came roughly four months after the city school board voted 5-2 in April 2018 to adopt the standards at every high school in the district. The rollout of the new requirements cost the district about $1 million.

Supporters of the requirements see the curriculum shift as an equity measure that boosts opportunities for minority and low-income students. If successful, it gives every student greater access to a university education, and increases college readiness.

In 2016, fewer than 20% of Latino graduates of Santa Rosa district high schools completed college prep courses, compared to 37% statewide — statistics that prompted an outpouring of community support when the district board adopted the college-bound requirements.

After the first year under the program, 95% of students were enrolled in college prep math courses, a change from 68% the year prior. Also, students under the English-learner designation — those still learning to speak fluent English — saw a 300% increase in enrollment in the college track, while enrollment of special needs students increased from 14% to 64%.

The teachers’ union supports the city school board’s goal of creating heterogeneous classrooms with students from all ends of the achievement spectrum receiving the same high school education, Lyons said. However, many are struggling to navigate the widened jump to college prep courses in high school.

According to district figures, 25% of freshmen failed the first integrated math class, Math 1, when grades were finalized last spring. In order to satisfy that requirement to graduate on time, they had to take the class again as sophomores. For comparison, 20% of ninth graders failed math in the 2017-18 school year, the final year under the previous requirements.

School board trustee Jenni Klose, an ardent supporter of the curriculum switch, said she is not in favor of a pause from it. That would send the wrong message and tell Santa Rosa high school students they are not capable of meeting a standard steadily gaining traction in California public education, she said.

Roughly 29% of the Santa Rosa high school graduates completed their college prep courses with at least a C grade in 2016, compared to 48% statewide.

“We knew at the beginning this was going to be a heavy lift,” Klose said. “We were compelled to make a fast turn even though fast turns on a big ship are hard. In my mind, this was nothing short of a civil rights issue.”

You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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