Officials of Orange County's largest school district were dealing with the fallout Tuesday from a high school principal's memo that urged teachers to pass failing students so they could graduate and allow the school to meet federal graduation requirements.
A June 9 memo from the principal of Santa Ana's Saddleback High School asked teachers to reconsider the failing grades of 98 students so that the school could meet the standards of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
"This is the largest number of non-graduates we have had in years!" reads the memo from Principal Esther Jones, who didn't return calls seeking comment. "I am asking teachers of these non-graduates to please review your records for these students and determine if they would merit a grade of 'D' instead of a failure."
Jones added that the school needed 95% of its seniors to graduate, but it actually needed 82.8% under the law -- which was achieved. In fact, Saddleback, which will graduate more than 500 today -- a rate of 83.7% -- is among the troubled district's better-performing schools.
Santa Ana Unified School District Supt. Al Mijares said he planned to brief school board members about the incident in a closed session.
"It raises alarms. It raises concerns," said board member John Palacio. "We need to look at this real closely."
Educators say the incident highlights the intense pressure schools face in meeting accountability standards of the No Child Left Behind Act. Under the 2002 law, districts must raise achievement levels or face sanctions, including the loss of federal funding or the removal of principals and teachers.
"The higher you make the stakes, the more pressure there is," said Bill Padia, director of the policy and evaluation division at the state Department of Education.
Mijares and other district officials met with Saddleback teachers Monday and told them to ignore the memo. An assistant superintendent spent Tuesday combing through recent grade changes and planned to talk to teachers about them.
"Everybody is under pressure ... and there are severe consequences for schools that do not progress," Mijares said. But, he said, "our work needs to focus on the education of students and not be extremely obsessed with" meeting accountability requirements.
School board President Audrey Yamagata-Noji said she needed to find out more about Jones, the incident, and her leadership of the school before determining whether discipline was necessary.
"We have very high standards," she said. "We have numerous parents that plead with us to let students graduate, and we hold the line. This [memo] goes against all that we believe in and pride ourselves on in terms of academic standards."
Several Saddleback teachers said they were outraged by the memo.
"I was pretty much insulted, because we do so much to help these seniors pass, and when you [fail a student], it really hurts," said Rosalind Turner, a 21-year classroom veteran.
Turner said she emphasized to students that passing her social studies class was required for graduation, sent progress reports to parents every six weeks, and offered help to struggling students.
"We do everything we possibly can to pass them. To be asked to go beyond that is ridiculous," social studies teacher Larry Collier said. "I termed [the memo] a slap in the face. I've never seen anything like that in my 44 years of teaching."