A campaign to get rid of D grades in Oakland schools is gaining popularity as a way to increase college eligibility rates among high school graduates and close gaps between white and Asian students and Black and Latino students. Credit: Amir Aziz

With about a month left until the end of the school year, Wednesday night’s school board meeting prompted discussions and disagreements about student progress and how Oakland Unified School District can best serve its students. 

Fewer than half of all OUSD seniors were on track to graduate at the end of the fall semester, according to a report shared with the board. Seniors who aren’t in alternative education programs, which have slightly different graduation requirements, fared a bit better, with about 54% headed down the graduation track at that time. This year’s seniors, the class of 2022, had their sophomore years disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and spent their junior year in distance learning.

To graduate, students have to pass a certain number of classes in English, history, math, science, language, visual or performing arts, electives, and physical education. They also must complete a senior project and have a minimum GPA of 2.0. Data presented Wednesday showed that seniors struggled the most with English and math, with around 40% not having met requirements for those subjects. 

District 1 Director Sam Davis asked administrators what’s being done to get more students on track to graduate. “For students at the senior level who might not be completing all the requirements, what interventions are available for them? And for the younger ages of high school, is there anything you’re doing proactively to prevent students from needing to go into credit recovery?”

Matin Abdel-Qawi, OUSD’s high school superintendent, said the district established academic recovery teams to target ninth and 10th graders who are at risk of falling behind, so that they can catch up before their senior years. He also cautioned board members against comparing the current numbers with previous graduation rates, since they were measured halfway through the school year. 

“The majority of these scholars appear to be on track to graduate now,” he said. “We expect the graduation rate and the A to G completion rate to be almost identical to what it was before the pandemic.”

A to G requirements refer to the classes that students must pass with a C or better to be eligible for admission to California’s public four-year colleges. Last year, OUSD’s graduation rate was around 72%, and has been above 70% for the past five years. In 2019 and 2020, nearly 54% of seniors met A to G requirements. 

District staff are considering a change to OUSD’s graduation requirements to enable more students to attend college. Right now, a D is considered a passing grade in OUSD, and students are able to graduate if they get D grades in their required courses. But for A to G requirements, students must receive a C or higher in those courses. That leads to about half of OUSD graduates not being eligible for admission to UC or CSU schools. Some education advocates are pushing OUSD to change its grading scale so that all students who meet district graduation requirements are also eligible for four-year colleges. 

But there are disagreements over whether such a change would have negative consequences. Some fear it could cause more students to fail or lower the threshold for achieving a C, leaving students less prepared for the academic rigors of college. 

“If there is a promise to drop the D, we have to have conversations with the Peralta Colleges and look at the data that shows our students are not doing as well as we expect them to do,” said District 3 Director VanCedric Williams. “I imagine dropping the D will actually put them at risk. We’re doing a disservice to pass them on through.”

Several OUSD schools have already implemented versions of a no D policy, like Life Academy and Coliseum College Prep Academy. Both have higher graduation and A to G completion rates than the district average. 

Abdel-Qawi said that district staff will bring a draft of the no D policy to Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell in the next week, and will present the idea to the board after that, to approve it or vote it down. 

One area where the district is doing better is in encouraging students to fill out financial aid forms for college. As of two weeks ago, 65% of seniors had filled out a college financial aid application, like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), compared with about 51% of seniors across the state. This time last year, about 60% of OUSD seniors had filled out an application. 

Several high schools have been particularly successful with helping Black and Latino students and students with disabilities apply for financial aid at rates of more than 70%. 

“We should all be really excited to see the results and efforts of counselors, teachers, pathway directors, and college and career readiness specialists,” Abdel-Qawi said. “Even with all the things going on in our schools and in our communities, they were able to accomplish this. This is an amazing accomplishment.”

Those rates could rise higher next school year, when a new bill goes into effect. Assembly Bill 469 will require that all high school seniors complete a FAFSA or Dream Act application—the latter of which is for students who are undocumented—or complete an opt-out process. 

Progress rates for African American students show disparities

The school board also heard a presentation on Black students in the district, which encompassed enrollment trends, chronic absenteeism, suspension rates, graduation rates, participation in Advanced Placement courses, and A to G completion rates. 

Many metrics show disparities for Black students when compared with other groups—one reason why OUSD approved a “Reparations for Black Students” policy last year. The policy created a task force to address those disparities and come up with solutions to improve Black students’ outcomes. The task force meets monthly and those meetings are open to the public.

One point that received much attention Wednesday is the suspension rate. Black students, especially Black boys, continue to be suspended at notably higher rates than other groups. That disparity led the Department of Education to investigate OUSD in 2012 for racial discrimination, and the agency cited a number of concerns.. Afterward, OUSD implemented some policy changes, including eliminating “willful defiance” as a reason for suspension, and expanding restorative justice programs in schools. 

And 10 years later, Black students are still being suspended at rates more than two times higher than the district average. 

“What’s left out here is how much money the district says they’ve dedicated to these issues. We’re getting no bang for our buck if this is the progress we’ve made,” said District 5 Director Mike Hutchinson. “This also leaves out the big old elephant in the room. The closure plan disproportionately targets African American students. What do you think school closures are going to do to all these data points?”

The one-day teacher strike planned for this Friday to protest school closures received little discussion from the board or district staff at Wednesday’s school board meeting. In February, the Oakland Education Association teachers union filed an unfair labor practice charge against OUSD over their decision to close schools with the Public Employee Relations Board, and a hearing will be held on the matter in May.

Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell, in a message to families earlier this week, called the strike illegal under the terms of the current collective bargaining agreement between the district and the union, and urged families to keep their students home on Friday because of staff absences. Johnson-Trammell did not address the topic on Wednesday. 

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.