Los Angeles school district leaders are considering an academic reform plan that would require all high school students to complete a set of rigorous courses needed for college admission, a proposal some critics say is overly ambitious.
Throughout the nation's second-largest school district, students tell stories of being placed in classes that do not meet college admission criteria. They blame a shortage of college track courses, as well as overburdened counselors who either don't inform them what they need for college or direct them to less rigorous options.
The proposal, which will be introduced to the Board of Education today and voted on next month, would require students -- beginning with the freshman class of 2008 -- to complete what is called the "A-G sequence" of 15 high school courses needed for entry into the University of California or Cal State University systems.
The college track program includes four years of English, a recommended four years of math and at least two years of history, science and foreign language.
"If we don't give students access to A-G requirements, we are limiting their choices," said board President Jose Huizar, who is sponsoring the resolution with board member Jon Lauritzen.
"I come across many, many students who in their senior year tell me 'If only I had known, if I only I had taken the A-G requirements, I would be at a university,' " Huizar said.
Supt. Roy Romer said he supports tougher requirements because "we need to raise the level of rigor in our curriculum."
He called on the state to provide funding for the college track initiative if approved, so the district can provide extra teacher training and student support. The district has no cost estimate for the additional classes and teachers.
"You don't turn a school district like this" into a college preparatory school district overnight, Romer said, "but that is the right goal and the right aim."
Huizar's proposal comes amid heightened local and national debate over how to fix failing high schools, particularly in large urban districts such as L.A. Unified, where a recent Harvard University study found that fewer than half of those expected to graduate in 2002 did so.
But such critics as James R. Stone III, director of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education, said not all students require a college track high school experience.
He said "cramming more academics" into students' schedules would lead to higher dropout rates, particularly among students who haven't mastered basic skills.
"You are going to knock out electives. There will be less art, music and career and technical education," Stone said. "As a consequence, the kinds of things that might keep kids engaged, you are going to see less of."
But more districts are moving toward a more academic track after decades of focusing on elementary education. Texas, Indiana and Arkansas recently adopted requirements similar to the L.A. board members' proposal.
San Jose Unified School District implemented a college preparatory curriculum five years ago, and its graduation rates increased from 73% in 1999 to 79% in 2003.
California state university leaders have criticized public high schools for failing to prepare students for college. Last year, Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based advocacy group for disadvantaged students, reported that only 23% of ninth-grade students statewide in 1999 completed all of the necessary college prep classes by graduation in 2003. Many of the schools didn't offer enough college prep courses, leaving some students without the opportunity to take them, the report found.
In L.A. Unified the situation was worse, especially for some minority groups. Only 15% of Latinos and 21% of African Americans who began their freshman year in 1999 graduated with enough of the courses to attend a four-year California university, according to Huizar's resolution.
His proposal calls for training teachers and providing support for students who are struggling. Although not the solution to failing high schools, Huizar said, it would complement the district's other reform efforts, such as converting high schools into smaller, more personalized campuses and the school building program, designed to relieve overcrowded classes.
Takoura Smith, 16, a junior at Washington Preparatory Senior High School in South Los Angeles, said that during her first two years on campus, counselors didn't tell her which courses she needed to be eligible for college. As a result, she took art twice, instead of enrolling in biology, geometry, chemistry or physics.
About 66% of classes at Washington Prep meet college admission requirements, according to UCLA data, and only 14% of freshmen who graduated in 2002 had completed enough of the needed courses to attend a state university.
That number is striking, college prep curricula supporters say, especially when compared with San Marino High School, which is in an affluent San Gabriel Valley neighborhood. There, 85% of classes met the college prep course requirements, and 78% of students graduated in 2002 with the courses necessary for college admission.
During her sophomore year, Takoura joined the Community Coalition, a grass-roots group in South Los Angeles that pushes for better education for inner-city students. She learned she was not on track to attend college.
"I went to the counselor and asked her about the A-G requirements," Takoura said. "When I wasn't in her face, my mom was in her face."
Takoura and her mother, Chalon Strather, joined Communities for Educational Equity, a group of more than 2,000 students and parents across Los Angeles that is lobbying the school district to adopt the mandatory college-track curriculum.
Strather said that if the plan is approved, it would benefit her son, now in sixth grade.
"I would like to see my child get ahead," she said. "If he can go in getting these classes already mandatory for him, that would be great."
Strather said it is essential for children to know that they can get into college, "not just think about it."
Takoura wants to become a teacher. After taking summer and night classes to catch up, she is now planning to attend college.
"I was a child who wasn't focused," she said. "It took some guidance and someone to listen and tell me 'If you want to be something in life, you're going to do it.' "
Huizar said he was prompted to introduce the motion after hearing stories like Takoura's.
He said schools had given up, "as if we don't expect these children to go to college, so it's not an urgency to provide these classes for them."
Last year, an initiative pushed by state schools chief Jack O'Connell and state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sun Valley) to require the college track program for all California high school students fizzled in the Legislature amid resistance from vocational education groups.
"These are life skills," O'Connell said. "Sheet metal workers need geometry, algebra, critical reading and writing skills. Blue-collar jobs even demand more of these types of skills."
UCLA education professor Jeannie Oakes said her research has found that students do better academically when placed in more challenging courses.
But she cautioned that teachers must be adequately trained and certified in the more advanced subjects.
In Texas, the college prep curriculum implemented this year has put a strain on teachers, said Ann Heuberger, vice president of the Texas State Teachers Assn. With more than 1,000 districts in the state, many of which are small, it is difficult to find teachers qualified in the more rigorous subjects, she said.
Luis Sanchez, a leader of Communities for Educational Equity, said his group recognized the challenges of implementing such a sweeping reform.
"We're not saying everybody needs to go to college," he said. "We're saying everybody needs to be prepared for a good job."