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High School Electives Tough to Eliminate

Districts trying to shave budgets face resistance to cutting academic extras.

May 05, 2003|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

Asked to shed $7 million to balance its budget, the Alhambra School District chose the obvious: It suggested trimming its excess.

But as school systems across the state have discovered as they race to cut budgets, the Alhambra district learned that defining excess isn't easy. In this case, the debate involves some of the district's brightest students, mainly those involved in Alhambra High School's prized biomedical research program. Their fierce reaction to some proposed cutbacks revealed the verve of some competitive teenagers.

At issue is a proposal to save about $750,000 by cutting two extra class periods used as electives in high school -- one before and one after the regular six-period school day. Some students use extra classes for such electives as yearbook or band, but others enroll in demanding academic courses that, the students hope, will bolster their college applications.

Extra periods have been offered in districts around the nation for decades, and they've become increasingly popular at the three high schools in the Alhambra district. About 800 of 8,300 high school students enroll in extra periods. Over the same time, acceptance requirements intensified in the University of California system.

Contributing to the academic intensity, say students, teachers and parents, is the fact that more than half of the district's high school students are Asian, and many come from families that place great stock in education. Most of the faces at a heated board meeting in April belonged to Chinese, Korean and Indian students, speaking not only for themselves, but also for their parents, who have limited English skills and were furious that their children may lose an academic edge.

"That's one of the hardest meetings I've had to chair," said veteran board member Barbara Messina. "One little girl, who was a freshman, said, 'You're cutting me off at the knees when I try to compete for quality colleges.' You can't argue with that."

But highlighting the complexity of the issue is another problem: While some students want to take seven or eight courses, others in the district have trouble assembling a schedule of six classes. The reason? Some teachers handling special seventh- or eight-period classes are unavailable to teach some standard courses most students need.

That's the view of district Assistant Supt. Julie Hadden. She said that about 600 students in the district are unable to assemble six-class schedules because teachers aren't available.

"There's a real problem with equity and access," Hadden said. "It's not business as usual [because of the state deficit]. I wish we had the money."

Alhambra officials are working to secure state funding and have devised a compromise that would preserve some of the courses offered as seventh or eighth courses.

Each high school would be allowed to offer two electives that could count as a seventh or eighth course. At Alhambra High, Hadden said, the biomedical program and popular academic decathlon team will most likely be saved. Electives such as yearbook and debate would be absorbed into the six-period schedule; many students would not have a free period to choose an elective.

The district, which has a $151-million budget and 20,000 students, is considering cuts in temporary teachers, administrative staff and class size initiatives.

Hadden said staff studied surrounding districts and discovered that few others offered extra periods, and when they did, none matched the enrollment found at the Alhambra School District. That number will drop drastically as programs such as debate, journalism and yearbook will likely be offered only within the traditional school day.

Christine Lee, a senior on Alhambra High's academic decathlon team, said electives are open to everyone, and students should be inspired to work toward enrolling. She's not impressed by school officials' explanation that they will offer the same number of periods as other school districts.

"Are we supposed to be fortunate because we can be on par with everyone else?" said Lee, who will soon study mechanical engineering at UC Irvine. "Do you want your students to be like everyone else? At a top college, the same high grades and high SAT scores are average. You have to compensate somewhere else."

Paul Houston, executive director of the American Assn. of School Administrators, said adding class periods to the day has been a common practice for high-achieving schools. But Alhambra School District's high schools are varied in achievement. While Mark Keppel High's test scores rank in the top 20% of state schools, Alhambra High and San Gabriel High lie in the middle.

Nevertheless, the biomedical program has given Alhambra High name recognition by making waves in national science competitions. Some of its students have had their work published in scientific journals, a feat considered difficult even for university students. For many of the 90 teenagers in the program, an ever-present goal is giving colleges a reason to choose them over another student.

Eleventh-grader Richard Hsu starts his day at 7 a.m. in the biomedical class and ends at midnight in a Cal Tech lab where he has been researching aging for three years. In between, he tackles two Advanced Placement classes and one honors course and switches between water polo and volleyball. He hopes to attend Johns Hopkins University.

"The reason why I'm competitive is because of my friends," said Hsu, 16.

"They're so much better than me [at schoolwork], you just want to keep at their level.... There's people maxing out the number of classes they can take."

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