Since the State Board of Education granted Santa Cruz a waiver earlier this year exempting it from the law requiring high school students to complete one year of algebra, about 200 other districts statewide have scrambled to make the same request.
The fate of about 13,000 students, or 4% of the state's senior class, was at stake.
Santa Cruz school officials went to Sacramento to plead for mercy in January, after discovering that they had overlooked a state law that imposed this requirement, and realizing that more than 150 of their seniors were at risk of not graduating.
"No one in the district was aware of the [requirement]. We didn't think it was fair that the students should suffer for mistakes made by adults," Santa Cruz City Schools Assistant Supt. Carl Del Grande said. "We might have been the first [district] to ask, but in my heart of hearts, I knew there were others."
How right he was.
Some of the other 200 districts that have since sought waivers have claimed ignorance of the law, like Santa Cruz, while others say low-performing students who struggle with algebra's abstract concepts deserve to be excused.
The state board has reluctantly agreed to approve the waivers this year and has ruled out future blanket approvals. Regardless, the rash of requests for exemptions has frustrated lawmakers and education officials who see the math requirement as vital to raising educational standards in California.
"I wonder what they all would have done if Santa Cruz, a district that completely failed in its obligation to its kids, hadn't cleared the way," said state Sen. Charles Poochigian (R-Fresno), who wrote the law requiring algebra. "It's really shameful."
The law, passed in 2000, requires all high school students -- starting with this year's senior class -- to complete Algebra 1 to graduate. The law does not exempt anyone, including students with learning disabilities, English learners or the troubled, at-risk students attending continuation high schools.
It is mostly these students, educators say, who are now struggling to learn the basics of quadratic equations, polynomials and the point-slope formula.
Poochigian and his supporters argue that the law is vital to raising the state's educational standards, to closing performance gaps between minority students and their white peers and to preparing students for college and the workplace.
"Algebra is a gateway skill," Poochigian said. "It is important in building higher levels of critical thinking for all students."
Like Santa Cruz, a few districts have said they simply were not aware of the law and criticized state officials for not having a better notification process. Others said they had wrongly believed that the algebra requirement had been postponed along with a statewide graduation exam until 2006.
But many of the 200 districts seeking waivers knew about the law and tried to expand their math programs to teach algebra to the relatively small number of students who weren't already on pace to fulfill or exceed the new requirement. They developed slower-paced classes that spanned two years, reduced class sizes and increased tutoring while letting their students know that their diplomas hung in the balance.
Nonetheless, at the start of the school year, teachers and administrators were still confronted with a core of seniors who had yet to pass algebra.
To be eligible for the waiver, a district must at least enroll all seniors who have not completed Algebra 1 in the class in an attempt to learn the subject. And in an effort to prevent a similar rush for waivers next year, the exempt districts must also provide state officials with progress reports on how they are preparing next year's seniors who have not yet passed the course.
State officials say they do not know if any districts with students who have not completed Algebra 1 plan to deny them diplomas and not seek a state waiver.
California Deputy Supt. for Curriculum Sue Stickel, a former math teacher, said she was disappointed in districts such as Santa Cruz that had failed to implement programs for the seniors in need of algebra. In general, Stickel and Poochigian dismissed criticism that the law was too sweeping and did not allow flexibility for students with learning disabilities and limited English skills.
"Instead of expecting less from these students, the approach should be: What else do we need to do to this basic level?" she said. "I have a problem when we look at these students and we say it's OK to expect something less."
Poochigian accused critics of the law of exploiting special-education students and "using them as a rationale to undermine the drive to raise overall standards because they are either incapable or oblivious."
But some teachers and local school officials questioned the idea that all students are able, or need, to pass algebra.