College & Workforce Readiness

Calif. District: Talk Career Talk Or No Graduation Walk

By Sean Cavanagh — May 15, 2002 3 min read
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For some high school seniors in southern California’s San Fernando Valley, taking part in graduation-day festivities is no longer as easy as strolling across stage, shaking hands, and picking up a diploma.

If they want to participate in their commencement exercises this year, graduating students in the Los Angeles school system’s District C must describe their plans for some kind of postsecondary education or training to school officials—or at least explain their future career paths in detail.

Under the first-year policy, the graduates have to spell out those goals, which could include college, trade school, the military, or other options, even if they have met all academic requirements for a diploma.

The mandate applies to about 3,700 graduating seniors in District C, which has a K-12 student enrollment of 67,000 and covers a large swath of the northern Los Angeles metropolitan area. The policy, which was implemented earlier this year, has roused anger among some parents and civil libertarians, who describe it as intrusive and demeaning to students who simply plan to work after high school.

Robert J. Collins, the superintendent of District C, has heard the critics, but says they are distorting the initiative.

“In the past, our students were simply not getting the counseling they needed,” Mr. Collins said. “I want to make sure, before you walk across stage, you’ve discussed all of your options.”

Students from eight high schools and six “continuation” schools—the district’s term for alternative schools—are affected by the policy, Mr. Collins said. Graduation ceremonies are scheduled for next month, and so far, about 95 percent of those eligible to receive diplomas have met the new standard, Mr. Collins said.

Back in Van Nuys

Even so, the policy has generated angst in District C hallways.

“Some seniors don’t even know what they want to do after school,” Melody Separzadeh, the vice president of Taft High School’s senior class, told The Los Angeles Times. “They feel like it’s none of the district’s business.”

The policy applies only to District C, not to other schools within the Los Angeles Unified School District. Mr. Collins and several members of the Los Angeles system’s school board said District C has the latitude to implement the program on its own, though the school system has approved it.

Mr. Collins said he first tested the policy as principal at Grant High School, in Van Nuys, Calif., about 15 years ago, and it worked beautifully: No student ever failed to meet the requirement. He predicted all eligible seniors in District C would meet the standard, and likewise take part in graduation.

To this point, critics have mischaracterized the program, the superintendent insists.

Students do not have to show they plan to pursue college or specialized training, he noted. It’s OK to go straight to work—as long as seniors who intend to do so meet with a school counselor or administrator and formulate some kind of “postsecondary plan.” Such a plan, Mr. Collins said, entails talking about career choices and learning about how they could advance within a particular job.

The postsecondary plans are recorded by school officials, and do not have to be overly detailed. The idea, Mr. Collins said, is that a student who might simply be content to seek out a low-paying job talk with a counselor about options for advancing his or her career in the future. Such plans could involve taking vocational classes, or nothing at all—as long as students understand the options, he said.

Los Angeles school board member Julie Korenstein said she had reservations about District C’s policy at first, but supports it now.

“I would have a problem with it if it prevented a student from graduating,” said Ms. Korenstein, who has several District C high schools in the area she represents. Another board member, Caprice Young, said the school board could end up reviewing the policy over the summer, after watching District C’s graduation ceremonies in June. But for now, she is a strong supporter.

The district isn’t rendering judgment on career choices, said Mr. Collins. But he said he believes students satisfied with only a high school diploma will struggle down the road.

“You’re not going to be supporting a family, buying a home, by simply working in a fast-food restaurant,” he said. “If they’re going to work, I want to know, ‘What job do you want, and how will you pursue it?’”

A version of this article appeared in the May 15, 2002 edition of Education Week as Calif. District: Talk Career Talk Or No Graduation Walk

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