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: Its 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 AG classes or because their schools dont 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 AG 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 AG 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, its 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 AG level is more than adding classes; its a paradigm shift, one thats 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, Im for access, but I dont want to make a requirement. That doesnt work. This is really a civil rights resolution. Marqueece Harris-Dawson, executive director of the Community Coalition in South-Central, agrees. We cant just keep trying harder at what were doing and figure things will get better, he says. Now weve got AG, 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 AG 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 its 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 AG. 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 AG but was a key supporter of the African-American Learners 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 dont want to just add another layer of accountability for them, says LaMotte. Weve 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 AG 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 couldnt pass algebra, he says. Like LaMotte, Gallegos also wonders whether the AG 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 itll probably be somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million). Now that AG 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 arent popping just yet. Harris-Dawson of the Community Coalition and other AG supporters are the first to acknowledge the validity of LaMottes and CEJs 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 AG measure, citing concerns about the impact on vocational-ed teachers, it didnt 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 AG. Whatever its going to take for this to happen, its got to be done, says Gallegos. If it doesnt, our worst fears about a measure like this will come true.