While high schools across the state are toughening their graduation requirements to prepare students for college, one of the state's largest school districts is planning to make it easier for students to graduate.
In a proposal that would cut out health, college and career planning, world geography and earth science as required courses, the Santa Ana Unified School District is seeking to reduce the number of credits necessary to graduate.
Santa Ana's graduation requirement -- 240 credits -- is among the state's highest benchmarks. And like several other school districts, Santa Ana's move to lower the credit requirement to 220 may be an admission that it had pushed too hard, especially in a district where administrators struggle with keeping students in school.
"It will have a positive effect on dropout rates," Deputy Supt. Cathie Olsky said of the proposal. "It puts graduation in reach."
State education officials, however, traditionally encourage efforts to increase graduation requirements rather than weaken them. Over the last decade, high schools throughout California, including those in Santa Ana, San Jose and San Francisco, have imposed stiffer requirements meant to challenge more students and propel them toward college and successful careers. Many have moved to require all students to complete the minimum courses for admission to the UC and Cal State systems, a trend the state has applauded.
"Through this culture of high standards and high expectations we have seen improvement," said state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell. "But we need to continue to expect more of students, not less."
In Santa Ana, a city of mostly Latino immigrants where 60% of the students are learning English as a second language and nearly 4 in 10 at some schools do not make it through their senior year, officials say they are contemplating a more pragmatic approach.
Students' schedules are so packed with required courses that if they fail a class or two, they can lose hope of graduating, officials said.
Last year, administrators began crafting a proposal that would turn four courses typically taken during students' first two years into electives, but would still require students to take all the courses required for admission to the UC and Cal State systems -- something other big-city school districts such as Los Angeles and San Francisco have not done.
"If we give the students hope, we raise our attendance, we raise our graduation rates," said Michael Moss, a counselor and activities director at Valley High School in Santa Ana.
District officials were quick to point out that cutting the number of required credits will not diminish academic standards.
"There will be no change in rigor," said Jose Alfredo Hernandez, president of the Santa Ana school board, which is expected to vote on the changes as early as Tuesday.
School counselors support the plan, saying it will free up time in students' schedules, giving them more opportunities to retake classes they have failed. It will also give more latitude to students taking remedial and technical classes, English language learners who require specialized courses, and honors students taking advanced classes.
But critics fear there may be other motivations.
School board member John Palacio, who plans to vote against the proposal, said cutting requirements could save the district money, because fewer required courses could mean fewer teachers. It could also be a way for the district to manipulate its graduation statistics, which are required to improve under the federal No Child Left Behind act.
"We're trying to game the graduation requirements by diluting them so that we can increase our graduation rates," he said. "And I think we need to be honest about it."
Following the lead of other districts such as San Jose Unified, Santa Ana raised its requirements in 2000, saying the higher standard would challenge more students to aim for college.
The state requires a minimum number of courses in various subjects (three years of English and two of math, for example) and a passing score on an exit exam to graduate high school.
Santa Ana is not alone in rethinking its earlier ambitions.
San Francisco Unified, for example, upped its graduation requirements in the late 1990s only to relax the math component in 2000, over concerns that it was too demanding.
"I have nothing against high standards, but I also believe that you have to be realistic," said Nadine Rodriguez, president of the Santa Ana High School parent-teacher association, whose daughter is expected to graduate this summer. "For the longest time we've been scratching our heads" over the high number of credits and the limitations it places on students, she said.
But Jonathan Espinoza, a freshman honors student at , said the requirements are not too demanding and that easing them would send the wrong message.
"By lowering them it's just like saying we don't want to put our students to their full potential," he said.