OAKLAND — Each year, even before they arrive at their first high school class, ninth-graders across the Oakland Unified School District set out on a path that won't prepare them for college or into skilled occupations.
These students — who are disproportionately African-Americans, Latinos and English learners — might not realize, until it's too late, that their post-high school opportunities have narrowed with every remedial or watered-down academic course on their schedules.
That reality could soon change.
This week, the Oakland school district answered calls by civil rights groups and student activists to enroll all high schoolers in the 15 courses required by California's state universities, known as "A-G requirements." On Wednesday night, the school board decided to make college prep the default program — and the new high school graduation requirement — for those who enter ninth grade in 2011.
"I think it's a great day for equity and social justice in Oakland," said Brad Stam, the district's chief academic officer. "I feel a lot of pride that students led the way on this."
Karen Pezzetti, an English teacher at East Oakland's Youth Empowerment School who was honored last fall as one of Oakland's teachers of the year, said she felt the resolution would send a powerful message to the city's school children.
"We keep talking about how we're going to make sure that all students will be college- and career-ready," Pezzetti said. "I feel like this is the first step."
An 18-month review of senior transcripts released in March by the Oakland-based research and advocacy group Education Trust-West found that only 37 percent of Oakland high school seniors — 26 percent of African-Americans; 30 percent of Latinos; and 5 percent of English learners — were on track to graduate in 2008 with the 15 college courses required by the University of California and California State University systems.
Those figures don't include students who dropped out before the 12th grade.
The San Jose school district ramped up its graduation requirements for the Class of 2002, and the percent of its state university-eligible graduates jumped from 37 percent in 2001 to 65 percent in 2002. For Latinos, the rate more than doubled between 2001 and 2002, from 19 percent to 44 percent, according to data reported to the California Department of Education.
The South Bay district's reported dropout rate held fairly steady during the transition, between 4 and 6 percent.
Karen Fuqua, spokeswoman for the San Jose school district, said incoming 11th graders who are not keeping pace with the college prep schedule have the option of creating an alternative high school graduation plan. About 17 percent of the district's students do so, she said, and they graduate with regular diplomas.
"We don't want kids to not graduate," Fuqua said. "We just don't want to close the door on them. We want kids to have options at the end of four years."
Fuqua said she once heard a student compare the district's graduation policy to bumper bowling: "It just protects you from going into the gutter."
Fanny Deng, an English learner at Oakland Technical High School in North Oakland, said she could have used such a safeguard. "I'm an immigrant from China," she said. "When I came here, I didn't know what was an A-G requirement."
Deng and other students are part of a campaign organized by Asian Immigrant Women Advocates to educate English learners about the road to college. They said many of their friends were in the dark about the required courses — or how to gain access to them — and that they supported the policy change.
The advocacy group surveyed 250 English learners at Oakland High and Oakland Tech and found that 56 percent of students wanted a higher education, but that 71 percent were not aware of California's university requirements.
"Most of them feel depressed and sad," said Wo Guan, a student at Oakland High School who said he has felt the same way.
Late last month at Oakland High School, Guan and Mu Ting Cen stood before a large class of English learners and answered questions about course credits. They explained that most English language development courses do not fulfill the university English requirement, but that they might be able to catch up if they take summer classes at a community college.
Guan and Cen then quizzed their peers on the contents of an "ELD College Ready" handbook and flow chart designed specifically for teenage English learners, complete with emotions.
"We hope in our future we can go to college and have fun and study hard and graduate from college," Cen said in an interview before the presentation.
Oakland school officials say a committee of students, teachers and other groups will work on the A-G plan, and that it will include provisions to support those who are behind academically, from credit-recovery summer school programs to tutoring. Training for teachers and counselors is a key part of the resolution.
Greg Cluster, a teacher at MetWest High School, said significant changes must be made at each high school for the plan to help students.
"My concern is that a lot more kids won't get diplomas," Cluster said. Still, he added, "I think it's well intended, and it's going to provide a push in the right direction. Far too many students are not getting what they need out of their high school education in Oakland."
Oakland public school children who enter the ninth grade in 2011 -- the class of 2015 -- will be automatically enrolled in the courses required by California State University and the University of California systems. These 15 classes, known as A-G, will eventually become a requirement for high school graduation in the district.