Eight years ago, the Los Angeles Board of Education adopted an ambitious plan to have all students take college-prep classes to raise academic standards in the nation's second-largest school district.
Now, that plan is about to take effect: Beginning this fall, incoming freshmen will have to pass those classes to graduate.
On Tuesday, district officials backtracked, offering details of a proposal to reduce overall graduation requirements and allow students to pass those classes with a D grade.
They must change course, Los Angeles Unified School District officials said, or they would open the doors to scores of dropouts and others who can't pass the tougher requirements. The new plan, which must be approved by the board, would allow students to graduate with 25% fewer credits.
"If we don't do something, we have to be prepared to be pushing out kids as dropouts," said Deputy Supt. Jaime Aquino at a school-board committee meeting Tuesday. "We face a massive dropout rate in four years."
Currently, a student must earn 230 credits to graduate. Under the proposal, that requirement would be reduced to 170 credits, the minimum set by the California Department of Education. Among the requirements to be dropped are: health/life skills, technology and electives that cover a broad range of subjects, including calculus and journalism.
"I know of no other school district in California that is reducing graduation requirements by 60 units and calling it an improvement," said former senior district official Sharon Robinson, who now is an advisor to school board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte. LaMotte added she isn't convinced the district can carry out the policy successfully.
Former school board member David Tokofsky, who supported the original plan, also was bothered by the reduced credit requirement.
He said officials should focus on getting younger students prepared to succeed in high school.
Students who pass all their classes typically will earn a minimum 180 credits by the end of their junior year.
Under the staff proposal, students also could pass the college-prep classes with a D even though California's public university systems require a C or better for admission.
Former school board member Marlene Canter, who also supported the more rigorous requirements, said that "it doesn't make sense" to push for a college-prep curriculum but not the grades necessary for the courses to count.
District officials said they hoped to raise the bar -- mandating students earn at least a C -- for the class of 2017.
The expectation is that even D students benefit from more difficult classes, even if they don't qualify for a four-year college.
"These courses are the markers of a more rigorous curriculum," said USC education professor Guilbert Hentschke.
Since most students don't attend a four-year university, a college-prep curriculum also "should have a giant effect on success in a two-year community college," Hentschke said.
Of those who started as freshmen in the class that graduated four years later in 2011, only 15% were eligible for admission to the University of California and California State University systems. Even among graduating seniors, close to half failed to complete what's called the "A through G" curriculum, the college-prep classes. If those students were unable to earn a diploma, the graduation rate would plummet, officials said.
Reducing the required credits means that students will be able to retake college-prep classes or get extra help during the regular school day, said Gerardo Loera, the district's executive director of curriculum and instruction. "We're not considering this as an ideal solution," Loera said. "It's a creative solution with the amount of resources we have."
The school board approved the more rigorous, phased-in graduation requirements in June 2005. At the time, community and school activists pushed hard for the changes, saying that poor and minority students lacked equal access to college-prep classes.
Today, they say they are disappointed with the pace of progress, but still support the initiative. The goal remains to get students to a grade of C in college-prep classes -- and to give them the support they need to get there, said Maria Brenes, executive director of InnerCity Struggle, a local nonprofit that helped lobby for the changes.
"Almost always these policies are done for really good motives," said Gary Orfield, who directs the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. "It would be great to mandate that everyone would get an A. My belief is that just passing a rule that says you will achieve such and such does not change the world. If it's done without adequate thought and support, it increases the obstacles for students already facing tremendous obstacles and risks denying them crucial high school credentials."
Some college-track students at Los Angeles High School said recently that they have no problem with more difficult requirements.
Junior Rosario Lopez said she understands how factors outside of school can undermine a student's efforts. For a long time, she lacked a place to study -- and sometimes even a consistent place to live -- because of her family's economic struggles. And one relative insisted that she should do housework rather than homework.
Though most of her grades are A's and Bs, she worries she might need another shot at passing Algebra 2.
But she also supports aiming high.
"If the students know they can just pass with a D," she said, "then they're not going to take the initiative to get a higher grade."