Santa Rosa high schoolers will have to complete college-prep courses to graduate

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High school students in the Santa Rosa district will be required to take college-prep courses to graduate starting with next fall’s freshmen, although the district plans to offer an alternative career pathway that will allow some students to take vocational courses their junior and senior years.

School board members voted 5-2 to adopt the more rigorous graduation requirement late Wednesday, after two hours of public comment on the controversial measure.

“This is the biggest (decision) coming before the board that’s going to change the nature of education at Santa Rosa City Schools,” said Laurie Fong, one of the board members who supported the switch.

For the third time in the past month, Latino students and families packed the meeting, urging board members to squash the district’s two-track system that channels high school students into either a university-bound courseload or classes that would qualify them for vocational and community college. Waving signs and wearing shirts that read “College Access Now,” they called for leveling the playing field for minorities by requiring all high schoolers to complete college-preparatory classes before earning a diploma.

Jenni Klose, the school board president, has long maintained the district needs to do more to give low-income and minority students better access to college. She argued Santa Rosa students from low-income and minority households too often find in their junior and senior years that their coursework does not qualify them for admittance at state universities.

She first pushed for requiring all students to take the so-called A-G courses needed to get into the state’s public universities four years ago but saw little support from teachers and board members at the time.

“It’s a different board,” Klose said before Wednesday’s meeting. “It’s the right thing to do for kids. I hope we can approve the policy today and get going on some implementation plan.”

Many in the crowd cheered and applauded when Klose and board members Fong, Frank Pugh, Bill Carle and Ed Sheffield voted in favor of the switch just before 10 p.m.

Evelyn Anderson and Ron Kristof opposed it.

“During my high school experience, not one counselor, not one teacher talked to me about going to college,” Pugh said. “I didn’t know the difference at the time. I didn’t know there was choice.”

Pugh said he thankfully went to high school with his wife, who he followed to college.

“She had parents who knew what to do. Mine didn’t,” he said. “Not all students have access to people in the know… I was lucky. Many weren’t.”

Last year, about 16 percent of Santa Rosa’s Latino graduates completed with at least a C grade the college-prep courses. Overall, 30 percent of graduates completed the classes, much lower than the statewide average of 47 percent.

The switch drew opposition from many teachers, staff and some students, who expressed concern over taking away regular classes from students, especially those already struggling in school.

“Our children are not made one-size-fits-all. They shouldn’t be educated that way,” Anderson said to a packed but divided room.

While not remedial, regular classes were designed for students who don’t plan to go directly to a four-year university or who can’t keep up with their college-bound classmates.

District officials estimate it will cost more than $1 million to roll out the changes and academic supports, which officials said would be paid through grants and the Local Control Funding Formula.

Teachers raised concerns over the cost to implement the requirements, as well as the need for faculty training. They also expressed concerns over reducing elective classes.

The Santa Rosa Teachers Association, which represents nearly 1,000 educators, said in a statement that students with special needs “deserve alternatives to college-prep” courses.

Fong and other board members applauded the superintendent, Diann Kitamura, for bringing forward a plan that will allow juniors and seniors to take part in a “special certificates” program that allow s students to prepare for the trades industry while taking college-prep classes.

Kitamura said students will be able to replace some of the college-prep classes with “courses appropriate to earning the specialist certificate.”

Under the new requirements, students with individualized education plans also will be able to opt out of college-prep classes, said Steve Mizera, assistant superintendent of student and family services.

Still, Will Lyon, the teachers union president and a Santa Rosa High School English teacher, has argued the changes could result in more students failing and dropping out of school and less rigorous college-prep classes — all points Klose disputed.

Kitamura has said current graduation requirements aren’t much different than what the state’s public universities require. Students would have to take three years of math instead of two and two years of a foreign language instead of one.

She said 77 percent of the core classes districtwide already meet the state universities’ requirements.

In the North Bay, Napa and Sonoma Valley Unified already require students to complete A-G classes. They have seen their graduation rates increase, say Santa Rosa district officials.

“We need to change what’s not working to get the results we want for all kids,” Kitamura said Wednesday. “After four years we’re at a point where a policy must be put in place.”

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 707-521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.

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