Making the Grade Is Getting a Little Tougher at Fillmore High


During a meeting last year to discuss graduation requirements, something struck David Anderson and his fellow school board members as a bit strange.

"It suddenly hit me and others that you can get a diploma with a D-minus average, and we said, 'Wait a minute. That doesn't seem appropriate,' " Anderson recalled.

That meeting kicked off a series of discussions that led to a new policy on graduation requirements, adopted earlier this month by the Fillmore Unified School District board.

The action makes the district the first in Ventura County to require a minimum 2.0 grade-point average--a C average--for a high school diploma.

All other county districts require an average of at least 1.0, or D.

This new standard will apply only to students beginning as freshmen next fall at Fillmore Senior High School and those who follow, giving the school--and students--time to adjust.

If applied immediately, the new graduation standard would bar about one-third of this year's seniors from graduating, said John Wilber, an assistant principal at the district's only high school.

The district has historically posted low average scores on standardized tests and low college attendance rates compared with others in the county.

But when school district officials were examining all the intervention and support programs for students, they realized "there is no excuse for the number of kids to get less than a 2.0," said district Supt. Mario V. Contini. "It was absolutely ridiculous."

That was when officials decided to set the new standard, to give students more incentive to perform better, they said.

Similar Steps

Outside Ventura County, a few other school districts have taken similar steps. Exeter High School in Tulare County is establishing the 2.0 GPA graduation requirement this year.

At Santa Maria High School, officials have for decades required students to attain a minimum of a C in at least 150 out of 250 credits to graduate.

Students are divided over the new graduation standard.

Some wonder whether the new policy will set students up for mass failure. Others argue the new standard will give students the push they need to pay more attention to schoolwork.

The new policy will "make them work harder, because right now you can get a D and still pass," said junior Greg Arnsdorf, who said he has a 4.3 grade-point average, takes advanced courses and plans to attend UCLA.

Students who work hard, he said, are often teased. "Right now the cool thing to do is get a D," he said.

Tony Vega, also a junior, said this is what students need to help increase motivation.

"Students will try harder so they can pass . . . now they'll focus more," he said.

But some worry that students won't enroll in difficult classes so they won't risk low grades.

"Students that do good will keep on doing good," said senior Eladio Montelongo. "Students that don't will take only the easy classes, such as PE and art."

Others worried the new graduation requirement could create a sense of hopelessness among students with low grades and result in increased dropouts. A few Fs could pull students' cumulative GPAs so far down that some may give up, said sophomore Katrina Alamillo.

"If they get two Fs, they'll think, 'Why try harder?' because they won't be able to graduate anyway," Katrina said.

"They'll either end up giving up and going into independent study or getting a job at McDonald's or something," freshman Violeta Granados said of students who may not feel capable of meeting the standard.

Improvement Expected

Senior Viviana Magana, whose grades have teetered above and below a 2.0, said she understands what it's like to lose hope. Sometimes, "You think you put all your effort into it and the teacher gives you a bad grade and you give up."

Contini, the district superintendent, said there were similar concerns that students would drop out when the district put a new attendance policy into effect several years ago.

It required that students with excessive absences from a class receive no credit for it even if they had a passing grade.

Students responded to the higher standards by missing fewer classes, and the dropout rate did not increase, Contini said. Similarly, students will perform to the new expectations for graduation, he said.

"I have a lot of faith in our kids, and I'm sure they will rise to the challenge because they know what's good for them," Contini said. "All of those that are in education didn't get into education to help kids get Ds and Fs. And I don't think the kids intended to go to school to get Ds and Fs."

Among other steps resulting from the new policy, the district staff is considering how to prepare students in the lower grades for the higher expectations. And staff members also intend to find out what other kinds of aid they can offer in high school.

All this planning will take place during this and the following school year. District officials may consider mandatory attendance at Saturday school, summer school, and homework and tutoring centers for students who aren't performing well in high school.

The district will also put together a committee of parents, teachers and staff members to develop grading standards to minimize the chances of grade inflation by teachers who fear they will be harming students if they give them low marks, Contini said.

At Fillmore Junior High School, the school site council has developed a monitoring program this year to hold back eighth-grade students whose grade-point averages are consistently below 2.0.

Already the school has sent five eighth-graders back to seventh grade; they will be advanced when they show improvement, said Principal Phillip Catalano.

The campus has created new programs to help students, such as two-hour Saturday sessions to focus on reading and math, Catalano said. The school also established a "homework buddy" program, in which students are trained to assist their peers with schoolwork.

And once a week, the assistant principal meets with students who have grade-point averages of 2.0 or below, to give them encouragement and tips on studying and test-taking.

Teachers in the past had expressed frustration that students were being passed through the system after performing far below desired standards.

The new changes are occurring, said Catalano, because "it's finally come to a point where everyone is saying we can't continue allowing this to happen."

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