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Slow progress on college prep goal

L.A. Unified is falling short of its promise to make 'A-G' classes standard by 2012.

August 13, 2008|Jason Song | Times Staff Writer

Three years ago, Roosevelt High School student Jose Orea went to Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters and handed out pamphlets imploring officials to provide more college preparatory courses. It was the first time he'd gotten involved in politics, and he was filled with enthusiasm.

When the L.A. Board of Education agreed to ensure that all students would have access to the classes by 2006 and to require them for the class of 2012, Orea, then a sophomore, thought he'd made a difference.

"There's a stereotype that students from East L.A. don't want to finish high school, and it was a chance to show everyone that we do want to go to college," he said in a recent interview.

Fast forward to this spring: Orea, now 18, was at district headquarters again, his optimism gone.

"No progress has been made," he told the board. "We need more to be done. We cannot let this lack of effective implementation continue."

The ambitious "A-G" program, named for 15 classes in seven categories students need in order to be admitted to California's public universities, was touted as a way to increase student participation and prepare students for college.

But district officials, who began surveying campuses this summer to find out how many students are taking the courses, say the program has made fitful progress.

The percentage of college prep classes has increased districtwide, from 62% of all course offerings in 2004 to nearly 66% last year.

Although the percentage of students, 47.6%, who fulfilled their public university requirements remained unchanged during that time, about 10,000 fewer students completed those classes, according to state statistics.

L.A. Unified officials point out that the district's enrollment dropped by nearly 30,000 students during that time.

But the percentage of such courses has dropped in some areas, notably on the Eastside, advocates say. In 2006, 53% of classes at Roosevelt High School met the requirements, according to a 2007 UCLA study. Last year, half the courses did.

And at nearby Jefferson High School, 59% of classes qualified as college prep last year, a three-point drop from the year before.

Orea's experience also shows what happens when youthful idealism runs headfirst into the bureaucracy of the nation's second-largest school district. Orea had hoped his actions would give his younger brother, Steven, who will be a freshman at Roosevelt this fall, a better academic experience than Orea had.

"Instead of things moving forward, they seemed to have moved back. He's probably going to have to do the same things I did," Orea said.

Three years ago, thousands of people crowded into district headquarters for the board's vote on the issue. Jose Huizar, the board president at the time, recalls students lining the sidewalks and filling a parking lot across the street.

"The students were saying, 'Set higher expectations for us and I'll meet them,' " Huizar, now a city councilman, said in a recent interview. "It was a huge deal, probably one of the most important policy shifts in the district."

Supporters urged passage of the resolution, saying the program would increase students' readiness for college and help more of them become eligible to attend University of California and California State University schools.

They noted the stark difference between the course offerings at high schools in more affluent neighborhoods and those in poorer areas.

At Cleveland High School in the San Fernando Valley, for example, 72% of classes were considered A-G courses, according to the 2007 UCLA study.

Orea said he became involved with the issue because he thought there weren't enough academic opportunities at Roosevelt.

He recalls "going crazy" with excitement when the resolution passed, but said he saw little improvement on campus. In his 11th grade Advanced Placement English course, there weren't enough seats for the 55 students, he said.

"There's a stereotype that students in East L.A. don't want to finish high school and go to college, but we do. We just don't have the resources," Orea said.

Huizar agreed that little progress had been made.

"The district has failed the test," he said.

School board members said that campus scheduling quirks may have contributed to a drop in the percentage of college prep classes at such campuses as Roosevelt and Jefferson but also acknowledged that implementation had not gone smoothly.

"What we're concerned about is we could have done so much more to be strategic and comprehensive," school board President Monica Garcia said.

Ramon Cortines, the district's new senior deputy superintendent, has promised principals and other administrators more resources for the program.

"I have shared with you from Day One that the goal is not to have 9th grade students programmed in college prep courses. Success is the goal for students," Cortines wrote in a July 7 memo to other administrators and board members. "I, along with staff, will do whatever we can to help you with the issues of capacity, etc."

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