José Rodríguez's parents never finished the 10th grade, he said, let alone earn a high school diploma. He, on the other hand, plans to attend the University of California at Berkeley next year.
Rodríguez worked hard, and so did his peers, he said. But he also gave credit to the school he attends, STEAM Legacy High School, for getting him ready for college.
"This school was able to give me that through all the different programs — it's insane," Rodríguez, 17, said.
Los Angeles Unified school officials have committed to raise the district's high school graduation rate — Superintendent Michelle King's strategic plan explicitly calls for "100 percent graduation" — while simultaneously attempting to raise graduation standards.
The class of 2016 was the first L.A. Unified expected to take the full sequence of courses California's four-year state universities require for admission, known as "the A-G." (Students can still earn diplomas if they get D's or better in these courses, even though state universities require C's or better for admission.*)
Yet L.A. Unified's graduation rate last year hit a six-year high — 77 percent — and school officials point to several practices as Rodríguez's school as models for the district-wide graduation push. For instance, every STEAM Legacy freshman sits with a counselor to draw up an "individual graduation plan." The school runs on a modified schedule that lets students take two extra classes each semester. Last year, STEAM Legacy's graduation rate was 94.6 percent.
"Is a 100 percent graduation rate possible? It is," said STEAM Legacy principal Carla Barrera-Ortiz, referring to King's goal. "I absolutely believe with every fiber of my being that it is because given access, given opportunity, given desire, given commitment, we can do it."
But while district insiders have cheered the rising rate, several candidates running in next Tuesday's election for the L.A. Unified School Board are more skeptical. Their concern: L.A. Unified's made it too easy for students to make up credits they needed to earn diplomas, making the graduation rate an "inflated" figure.
"While I understand that no board wants to see graduation rates decrease under their tenure, it’s the quality of their education, not the quantity of diplomas that are given out, that is most important," said Nick Melvoin, the candidate challenging incumbent board president Steve Zimmer, in his response to a KPCC candidate survey.
Ultimately, Gonez and Melvoin's concerns lead both them to question whether "100 percent graduation" deserves such a central role in the district's strategic plan — a policy position that puts the two candidates at odds with the superintendent and with much of the current board.
“We have changed the mindset of an entire city about our students,” said Zimmer during a recent United Way candidate forum.
Why doubt the credit recovery numbers?
Skeptics of L.A. Unified's high school graduation rate seize on this figure: 42 percent of L.A. Unified's 2016 graduates earned credits through non-traditional means, like a summer school, online or community college course, district officials said. Also included in that figure: credit recovery programs, which are special courses students take to make-up credits they’ve missed but need to graduate.
Most skepticism has centered on the use of credit recovery programs, particularly when students take them online. A Los Angeles Times editorial writer took one such course and found it was possible to learn something meaningful, but that it was also possible to cut corners and still recover credit.
"There have been questions about inflation with online credit recovery courses," Gonez said in an interview. "What we need to be focusing on are: what are the skills kids are graduating with? Are they graduating prepared for college and careers, or are they barely meeting those requirements, gathering their diploma still being behind their peers in other districts?”
But, since the district's credit recovery offerings are so varied, district officials said measuring the percentage of the class of 2016 who took online credit recovery is tough to pin down. Roughly 13 percent of the class of 2016 in L.A. earned credits from an online course — but that figure also includes non-credit recovery courses.
"It's all getting looped up in that number," said L.A. Unified chief academic officer Frances Gipson. She stressed the importance of not confusing these figures for a measure of the overall impact of credit recovery on the graduation rate.
'There is a need for credit recovery'
Research on whether online credit recovery is effective is scarce. According to one study of both online and face-to-face algebra courses in Chicago, there was little evidence that students taking credit recovery classes in either format were able to demonstrate they had actually learned something during those courses.
"But there’s also no evidence they’re learning less than they are in their classes during the school year," said Elaine Allensworth, part of the team behind the study and director of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.
But Allensworth said much of the criticism of credit recovery courses often misses a more fundamental point: the reason students failed these courses in the first place is not necessarily because they don't understand the material; students more often fail their courses because they simply aren't showing up.
As absences pile up, students fall behind in the coursework, causing them to withdraw further, Allensworth said. Strong credit recovery programs can address the root causes for a students' disengagement from class by not only getting them up caught up, but addressing the reasons why they were missing courses in the first place.
"A lot of people think the issue is skills and that’s what they worry about in terms of students actually getting that diploma," Allensworth said. "You want students to be gaining strong academic skills and gaining in their classes. But it’s not just the credits, it’s the engagement and work that really matters …
"There is a need for credit recovery," Allensworth said. "The question is how do you do it in a way that is going to be most successful."
Strange bedfellows support grad goal
No school district in Southern California — urban, suburban, rich or poor — boasts a 100 percent graduation rate. Statewide, the only districts who hit that benchmark have fewer than 150 students.
On the campaign trail, L.A. Unified's "100 percent graduation" goal has divided candidates along unfamiliar fault lines in a race primarily defined by a clash between charter school supporters and teachers unions.
Both Gonez and Melvoin have the endorsement of the political arm of the California Charter Schools Association. But Carl Petersen, a fierce charter school critic, whose challenge to incumbent Mónica García fell short in the March primary, raised similar concerns about whether setting a 100 percent graduation goal is the best strategy.
The graduation rate, he said, "is supposed to be a measurement of how we're doing, so we just kinda forced the outcome instead of working at the problems … Did we push [students] through the system and push them out the door, so here, we've given you a diploma, but you didn't get anything for it. If we continue to do that, we're going to devalue the diploma for everybody who receives it."
To García — who won re-election outright in the March vote and who, like Gonez and Melvoin, also enjoyed charter association support — the opposition to a call for 100 percent graduation is non-sensical.
"Who’s going to say 'Not my kid'? If we have an expectation that all kids succeed and all kids get to the finish line— I didn’t say you had to get 100 percent graduation in 12 years," said García. "What it means is we have high expectations for everyone and we are going to honor the commitment and responsibility we have to every child."
Imelda Padilla, Gonez's opponent, told KPCC in a candidate survey that she also supported the 100 percent graduation goal, but emphasized that the district must serve students on track for careers equally well as they attend to college-bound students' needs.
Gonez, however, said the district ought to find another yardstick against which to measure its success. She suggested the district ought to use, not the number of diplomas it issues, but rather measures of L.A. Unified students' post-graduation performance. She doesn't think Superintendent King's strategic plan, with "100 percent graduation" at its center, is substantive enough to achieve that end.
"I don't think that's a high enough bar for our kids," Gonez said of the graduation goal at a recent United Way candidate forum. "Is it helping our students be prepared for college? Are they taking remedial coursework? Are they staying in college or are they dropping out? Are they completing? …
"It's also," she continued, "about if our students are ready for careers. Are they workforce ready? Are they getting access to good, stable jobs? I don't think the plan really, at this point, dives into those critical details."
The real graduation goal
José Rodríguez's parents were reluctant about letting him attend STEAM Legacy High School at first. The school was brand new — it opened in 2012 — and would involve a 30-minute bus commute to South Gate from Rodríguez's home in Maywood.
STEAM Legacy — the "STEAM" stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math — is no students' default neighborhood school; students choose to attend the school and apply for admission.
Rodríguez said his choice paid off; through STEAM Legacy, he's gotten hands-on engineering experience. And because the school is so new, he said, his classmates feel more invested in their own performance.
"It definitely says something about choice," Barrera-Ortiz, the principal, said, "and having a choice as to what school you envision yourself being at … what that gives us is buy-in. That the students and the families who choose to come to STEAM Legacy, they're really buying into the mission and vision of the school."
Barrera-Ortiz said that's one of the factors behind the school's graduation rate. She noted the school has "embrac[ed] the challenge of credit recovery," but noted the number of STEAM Legacy students who needed it was relatively small.
She said the school is not an isolated pocket of success — that it's reflective of L.A. Unified's district-wide push for higher graduation rates.
Rodríguez disputed the idea that the district's push to hand out more diplomas devalued the one he's on track to receive.
"You can say you graduated high school, you can get a job, you can still make a living off that," Rodríguez said. "It’s better than dropping out and not being as highly-educated as one could’ve."
Rodríguez, a self-described "first-generation" immigrant, suspects the diplomas will be deeply valuable to his peers at STEAM Legacy — most of whom are low-income, almost all of whom are Latino.
"You don’t think about how their minorities — their background, what they’ve been through — how little they know about this kind of information," he said.
"For them to get a high school diploma, that’s a goal."
* CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece misstated the graduation requirements L.A. Unified officials set for the class of 2017. They may earn diplomas with grades of D or better in A-G courses, not C or better. KPCC regrets the error.