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With New Commencement Policy in Place, Every Grad Has a Future

Education: So far, no students in Valley's Subdistrict C have been banned from ceremony for not making plans beyond high school.

June 21, 2002|DAVID PIERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When it came time to put on the cap and gown Thursday, nobody was left out at the Los Angeles school system's mini-district graduations in the southwest San Fernando Valley.

Despite a controversial policy prohibiting students without post-secondary plans from participating in commencement, all of the eligible seniors in Los Angeles Unified School District's Subdistrict C walked on stage to accept their diplomas Thursday. By the end of next week's ceremonies, 3,596 students will have graduated this year from the subdistrict's eight high schools.

Some seniors continued to complain about the policy, while administrators continued to defend it. "I think it's a good idea, but I don't think it should be forced," said Sergio Mercado, a senior.

But subdistrict officials said the policy gave seniors an opportunity to ponder their future at a time when the value of a high school diploma in the job market is diminishing.

Some students said they would never have applied to college had it not been for the policy. Others said that even though they've been accepted, they won't follow through by enrolling.

When the final commencement ceremony is held next Thursday at Van Nuys High School, it will mark the completion of a school year in which the subdistrict saw a 6% rise in the graduation rate from the previous year and an increased number of students admitted into community colleges and the University of California system, officials said.

"I want to recognize each of you for having a post-secondary plan," said Subdistrict C Supt. Robert Collins to 400 graduating seniors at a morning rehearsal Thursday at Reseda High School. "I know some of you said you didn't want us to make you do that. But for some of you, you're going to college now ... you're going to be some of the most famous graduates in the country."

Collins instituted the graduation policy in 1987 when he was principal of Grant High School in Van Nuys. This was the first year the policy applied to all of the subdistrict's high schools, which include Grant, Reseda, Van Nuys, Birmingham, Cleveland, Taft, the Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies and Valley Alternative.

To qualify for the ceremony, students had to show that they had committed or would commit in the near future either to a four-year college or university, a two-year college, a trade or vocational program, an internship or apprenticeship, or military service.

Civil libertarians criticized the policy, calling it elitist. Controversy over the policy also attracted attention from the national media.

"If the school district were really intent on giving every kid an opportunity, then they should put more college counselors in school, give more access to college curriculum, and provide more teachers and facilities to realize that possibility," said Mark Rosenbaum, legal director for the Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "It's a very superficial program that may make districts look good, but it doesn't really translate into equal educational opportunities."

School board President Caprice Young supports the policy, but would like the district to instill a desire for post-secondary education in students at a younger age. She said the policy may have hit a nerve with adults because "there's a real empathy with the kids, a real feeling that they shouldn't be penalized if they're 17 and haven't figured out what to do. Some of us in our 30s still haven't figured it out."

Officials credit the policy with increasing the number of graduates in the class of 2002 by 295 students. The policy may also be the reason for the significant increase in acceptances at community colleges in the area.

Officials said 429 students were admitted into Santa Monica College this year compared with 198 last year, 634 to Los Angeles Valley College compared with 339 last year, and 1,197 to Pierce College compared with 1,006 last year.

Mike Cornner, a spokesman for Pierce, warned that until students enroll, it will be hard to gauge whether the policy truly succeeded.

"A lot of students were scrambling around to meet the requirements and many of them may have chosen to apply at community college because we're the easiest and cheapest way," he said.

For 18-year-old Reseda High graduate Sergio Rivera Jr., there was a sense of relief and excitement after getting accepted to the College of the Canyons and completing his high school years.

"The policy is a good thing," he said. "They're preparing you for life."

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