We're Grading You: Los Angeles Parents, Students and Education Advocates Demanded School Reform and Won
Sanchez, Jarad, Colorlines Magazine
AS COMMUNITIES OF COLOR IN CALIFORNIA grew over the past 40 years, the state's schools became increasingly racially segregated. Today, two-thirds of California's K-12 students in public schools are children of color. These students are more likely than whites to attend schools with overcrowded classes, underqualified teachers and less challenging curriculum requirements. California now ranks below all but Mississippi in terms of the number of high school seniors who go on to attend four-year colleges.
In 1988, the University of California (UC) took a stab at reforming K-12 education by creating what has become known as its A-G policy. Each letter represents a category of classes that students must pass with a C or better to be eligible to attend a state four-year university in California. The policy was intended to be a partnership between UC and low-performing high schools, encouraging those schools to improve their classes.
The A-G policy was supposed to help students attending schools in places like Los Angeles, which has the second largest school district in the nation. Only 25 percent of Black students and 14 percent of Latino students in the district's 2003 graduating class were eligible to attend college. Forty-four percent of Black students and 56 percent of Latino students in that class dropped out.
If it's hard to grasp how large the problem is, then consider this: the L.A. Unified School District (LAUSD) has an annual budget of more than $7 billion. That's a larger budget than the one for the city of Los Angeles. It is also currently undergoing a $19.3 billion school construction project--the largest public-works program in the nation.
Faced with an educational system in shambles, parents, students and activists in Los Angeles took matters into their own hands. Beginning in 2004, three community groups--Alliance for a Better Community, Community Coalition and Inner City Struggle--formed the foundation of Communities for Educational Equity. They planned to mobilize Los Angeles students and parents to demand district-wide reform so that more kids could go to college. Eventually, nearly 30 different organizations including parents groups, student groups, educational advocates and legislative advocates joined the coalition.
Needing a roadmap for systematic reform, the coalition looked to San Jose for answers. The San Jose Unified School District adopted an "A-G for all" policy in 1997. As a result of the policy, students had to take all of the A-G required classes in order to graduate from high school. To accommodate this, San Jose changed the high schools' master schedule so that it offered more A-G certified classes. The school day, week and year in San Jose were also extended. School officials employed a detracking system where students of mixed abilities were combined in one class. They desegregated classes in grades 10-12 and added algebra and English tutoring and support classes along with a number of other programs to keep students from falling behind.
The results have been dramatic.
The percentage of Latinos graduating with complete A-G requirements rose from 18.5 percent in 2001 to 45.3 percent in 2003. The gap in the Academic Performance Index between white and Latino students fell by 24 percent. Overall, the percentage of high school graduates who had completed the A-G requirements skyrocketed from about 35 percent to more than 65 percent within five years of passing the policy. Black students showed similar success. In that same time period, the percentage of Black students who dropped out fell from 12 percent to 6 percent, while the number of Black students who graduated college-eligible rose from 27 percent to 56 percent.
Inspired by San Jose's success, the L.A. coalition took action to implement an A-G policy of its own. The first step was to expose just how desperately the district in Los Angeles needed change. …