The New Math of High School Graduation

The problems associated with big-city public schools run the gamut from A to Z, but A through G has quite a different connotation: It’s shorthand for the minimal coursework in seven disciplines, ranging from English and math to lab science and arts, that students must complete in order to qualify for the prestigious University of California. Activists who have argued for years that students at inner-city schools are systematically denied access to higher education, either because they are not tracked into A–G classes or because their schools don’t offer enough of them, got some rare good news last week when the Los Angeles Board of Education voted almost unanimously for a resolution that will make A–G a requirement for graduation. Barring any delays, the new requirement will go into effect for the freshman class of ’08, and the first graduating class expected to have completed A–G will be 2012. The coursework includes four years of English, two years of history, three years of math starting with algebra, two years of laboratory science, two years of a foreign language and one year of an advanced elective. Daunting as that may sound, it’s in fact only a total of three more classes than what the district requires for graduation now. But proponents say that kicking requirements up to the A–G level is more than adding classes; it’s a paradigm shift, one that’s long overdue. “This moves a very old conversation about high expectations for all students into real policy,” says organizer Luis Sanchez of InnerCity Struggle in East L.A., one of many community groups that united behind the resolution. “The argument has always been, ‘I’m for access, but I don’t want to make a requirement.’ That doesn’t work. This is really a civil rights resolution.” Marqueece Harris-Dawson, executive director of the Community Coalition in South-Central, agrees. “We can’t just keep trying harder at what we’re doing and figure things will get better,” he says. “Now we’ve got A–G, and the school district as service provider has to deliver.” Ensuring that the district will do that over the long haul is the devilish detail that already has some folks worried, beginning with board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte. LaMotte, an African-American, cast the lone vote against the resolution last week; her district includes some of the most troubled and lowest-performing high schools in the city, including Washington Prep, Manual Arts and Fremont. A former principal at Washington, LaMotte says that she agrees with the A–G measure philosophically but fears the reality of having to enforce yet another ambitious but poorly thought-out requirement — à la the No Child Left Behind Act — that will end up discouraging the very population it’s meant to help. She fears that black and Latino students, who are already failing in great numbers, who are struggling with other district requirements such as algebra, who are failing standardized tests, and who come to high school ill-prepared by their elementary and middle schools, are simply in no shape to take on the demands of A–G. LaMotte adds that students of color, disproportionately represented in special education, especially black males, are particularly vulnerable. Underscoring the increasingly complicated dynamics of reform is the fact that LaMotte voted against A–G but was a key supporter of the African-American Learner’s Initiative, a 2-year-old board effort to address the academic failures of black students in the LAUSD. “We want to give students access, but we don’t want to just add another layer of accountability for them,” says LaMotte. “We’ve got to have a master plan, and stop piecemealing the problem.” The Coalition for Educational Justice, a progressive reformist group that is usually in sync with InnerCity Struggle and Community Coalition, has been notably absent from the A–G movement. CEJ parent Bill Gallegos says that while his group is dedicated to closing the achievement gap and changing the status quo for black and Latino students, there are some hard truths to face before that can happen. “Some of our best student leaders in CEJ admitted they couldn’t pass algebra,” he says. Like LaMotte, Gallegos also wonders whether the A–G measure, which will require additional qualified staff and classroom space, will get the funding and resources it will need at overcrowded campuses that already have chronic shortages of everything from textbooks to counselors (the measure has no cost estimate yet, though board member Mike Lansing says it’ll probably be somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million). Now that A—G has passed, Gallegos is quick to add that the CEJ will be part of the effort to enforce it — the resolution actually calls for an implementation committee that will include representation from Communities for Educational Equity, the umbrella group of activist groups that championed the measure. But the corks on champagne bottles aren’t popping just yet. Harris-Dawson of the Community Coalition and other A–G supporters are the first to acknowledge the validity of LaMotte’s and CEJ’s concerns — they know the depth of the problems firsthand and have heard plenty of empty promises from the likes of the LAUSD and the federal government. But they say this measure has the potential to be different, for several reasons. It is a hard policy measure, not a declaration of intent to do good or a call for another study; unlike standardized tests and exit exams — which CEE has opposed — it is a long-term requirement that will actually benefit students, whether they go to college or not; and it will create a real seat at the education table for community groups. And last, but hardly least, it will help foster a budding alliance between grassroots activists and UTLA, the powerful teachers union that historically has operated in a sphere of its own. Though UTLA was officially opposed to the A–G measure, citing concerns about the impact on vocational-ed teachers, it didn’t stand in its way. Such was the agreement it worked out with CEE, one that Sanchez, Harris-Dawson and other activists hope will be the first of many more. But the key for everyone involved will be follow-up. Gallegos of the CEJ challenges school-board President José Huizar and Mayor-elect Antonio Villaraigosa, who is making more and more noise about mayoral control of the board, to get behind A–G. “Whatever it’s going to take for this to happen, it’s got to be done,” says Gallegos. “If it doesn’t, our worst fears about a measure like this will come true.”