Published Online: August 12, 2006
Published in Print: September 1, 2006, as Rising Up

Rising Up

Eight years ago, a California school district abolished a two-tiered system for academic haves and have-nots and replaced it with one pointing all students toward college. It's paying off.

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Rising Up

As an aspiring actress, Monica Pérez had to go to Lincoln High School, the magnet campus for visual and performing arts in California’s San Jose Unified School District. She spent her freshman year at another school waiting to get in, and when she finally enrolled in the popular school near downtown San Jose in 10th grade, she marveled at the array of theater, music, and dance classes she could choose from.

But even more striking, she says, was the academic load. Classes such as algebra II, an elective at her former high school, were now required. To graduate on time from Lincoln High in 2007, she must take an extra year each of math, science, and foreign language.

“Here, the work is really challenging, and I’ve had the highest GPA of my life,” Monica said during a lunch break at Lincoln High last April, when she was a 16-year-old junior. “Here, I feel like I can get into the colleges I really want to.”

Nurturing such ambition in San Jose Unified, where 70 percent of the 32,000 students are minorities, began eight years ago when the school board abolished a traditional two-tiered system—one tier for (mostly white and Asian) college-bound students, the other for those aiming solely for high school graduation. Responding to parental demands, the board adopted rigorous graduation requirements. The premise was simple: Increase academic standards and expectations for all students, and they would rise up to meet them.

Beginning in 1998, district freshmen became the first high school class in the state that had to complete the University of California’s minimum requirements for college admission—a series of core academic courses and electives known as the “A-G sequence.” A-G, in San Jose Unified, means at least three years of college-prep math, four years of English, three years of science, 3.5 years of social studies, two years of a foreign language, and two years of visual or performing arts. Forty hours of community service are required as well.

To make this work, according to Linda Murray, who was superintendent at the time, the district crafted a menu of programs for those who might struggle with the change. Up to two additional periods were allotted for the high school day. Saturday sessions were created to help students, especially in math. Summer school was redesigned to be rigorous, not remedial. The district also opened AP enrollment to all students, and watched as a diverse group signed up.

The advanced curriculum has produced promising results. Graduation rates have held steady—at more than 90 percent—despite fears they would plummet under the new system. And in 2003, 45 percent of San Jose Unified’s Latino graduates satisfied the A-G coursework with grades of C or better. That rate outstripped that of Glendale Unified, the highest-performing urban district in Southern California, where 17 percent of Latino graduates earned a C or better, according to the Education Trust-West, an Oakland, California-based group that advocates increased rigor in high schools.

“San Jose is dispelling some very important myths,” said Russlyn Ali, executive director of the group. “What San Jose makes clear is that those fears that there’s no way that Latinos and low-income students can cut it in a more rigorous environment are just flat wrong.”

For Monica Pérez, who would be the first in her family to go to college, the A-G curriculum is providing her the necessary preparation.

“It’s not easy when you’re the first, and when there is no one in your family that’s been through it,” she said of pursuing higher education. “But being in a high school that demands more of me is going to get me there, hopefully to Juilliard or [New York University].”

Vol. 18, Issue 01, Pages 28-31

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