Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Redondo teens skid off the university track

High-achieving district seeks change with just 42 percent meeting UC and CSU eligibility rules.

By all accounts, Nick Smith is a stellar student.

The Redondo Union High School senior is on track to graduate with a 3.8 GPA, earning 60 more credits than necessary to walk the stage – with honors. And yet he didn’t have the option to apply to a four-year college in the California State University or UC systems.

College student Megan McCaw is helping Redondo Union High School students in an AVID college-prep class. (Scott Varley, Staff Photographer)
College student Megan McCaw is helping Redondo Union High School students in an AVID college-prep class. (Scott Varley, Staff Photographer)

That’s because he never learned until it was too late that he needed two years of a foreign language to qualify. In many ways, he’s not unlike the majority of Redondo Union High graduates.

Like other schools in relatively affluent areas, Redondo Union has a strong academic reputation, with an unusually high number of students taking Advanced Placement classes.

But it is lagging in one surprising area: Fewer than half of the school’s graduates – just 42 percent – have taken all the necessary courses to qualify for entry into four-year colleges in either of the state’s major university systems.

The statistic is especially striking when compared with other South Bay high schools.

At wealthy Manhattan Beach’s Mira Costa High, the corresponding college-ready rate is 84 percent – double that of Redondo’s. At the two high schools in the Palos Verdes Peninsula school district, it ranges from 70 to 80 percent. In Torrance’s four high schools, the rate hovers between 50 and 60 percent.

Redondo educators can’t be accused of sweeping the issue under the rug. In fact, they’re the ones who went public with the unflattering figure last year, thereby initiating several reform efforts.

More recently, the issue was raised in a more public fashion during the campaign for the March 8 school board election. Namely, newly elected Laura Emdee made it part of her platform, saying the low rate is evidence of a widening gap between the school’s high achievers and the students in the middle.

“A lot of parents ask, `OK, do they have everything they need to graduate high school?”‘ she said. “But that’s not the right question. The right question is: `What do they need to get into college?”‘

The discussions in Redondo Beach come at a time when the federal government is paying closer attention to college completion rates. The United States used to lead the world in the proportion of young people with a college degree. But according to a recent survey by the College Board, the United States now ranks 12th of the 36 countries measured. The Obama administration has set a goal to regain the lead by 2020.

In Redondo, some officials attribute the disappointing college-ready rate to a default mind-set among many students to attend the two-year El Camino College after graduation. But others – such as Emdee – say a lack of awareness among families is equally to blame. During the campaign, she published a piece about the issue in PTA newsletters.

“Your child does not need a foreign language or three years of math to graduate from high school,” she wrote. “However, they do need these courses to be eligible for a UC or Cal State school.”

Underscoring the urgency is the fact that many community college students get lost in the system. By one count in a recent study, a full 70 percent of community college students fail to obtain degrees or transfer to four-year universities within six years, according to the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy at California State University, Sacramento.

In the past couple of years, the Redondo Beach Unified School District has launched several initiatives to boost the number.

“We have work to do and it’s not easy work,” said Annette Alpern, the district’s assistant superintendent of instructional services, who has brought the matter to the attention of the school board. “There isn’t an easy fix.”

The efforts include beefed-up programs, such as increased support in algebra and an expanded class geared toward first-generation college-goers. The school is also trying to instill a college-going culture: every Thursday, for instance, the faculty dons shirts emblazoned with college logos.

The school’s principal, Mary Little, often sports a green-and-white shirt advertising her alma mater, Michigan State.

“We’re doing more things like that to keep college sort of in the forefront – sort of like, `You can do this too,”‘ she said.

To be eligible for entrance to the UC and California State University systems, high school students in the Golden State must take the courses that satisfy all of what are known in education-speak as the “A-G requirements.” For instance, students must take four years of college-preparatory English, at least three years of math and two years of a foreign language, to name a few. The CSU system requires a minimum of a C grade in every class; the UC system requires an average GPA of 3.0.

At the private Loyola Marymount University, the A-through-G’s are more of a recommendation, but spokeswoman Celeste Durant said rare is the applicant who hasn’t met them.

As for Nick, the senior at Redondo Union High, he’d initially planned to attend UC Santa Barbara with a friend until he learned this year that he lacked the foreign-language credits to even apply. He’ll instead be attending Santa Monica College in the fall with an eye toward majoring in business.

“They go over it with students, but students don’t always follow through on stuff,” he said. “There needs to be more communication between the (guidance) counselors and parents.”

Among the 42 percent of students on track to meet the requirement is Kelsey Szerlip, the senior class president. But even Szerlip – a model student – came close to falling short.

For her, it came down to learning at the last minute that she needed a visual and performing arts class to qualify. Ironically, she is no stranger to the stage. Szerlip has acted in numerous community plays and, as a freshman and sophomore, took a dance class. For the better part of her high school career she was under the mistaken impression the dance class had satisfied the requirement. She finally learned otherwise last spring, while visiting with a guidance counselor as she signed up for senior classes.

“I was like, `Oh my gosh, you gotta put me in something,”‘ she said. As a result, she’s currently taking advanced drama.

Meanwhile, there is plenty of good news to go around at Redondo Union. Test scores have risen steadily. More impressively, more and more students at the school are taking AP courses, which generally demand college-level work. This year, about 565 students – or about a quarter of the school’s enrollment – are taking at least one Advanced Placement class, with the vast majority passing the tests. That’s up from 400 in 2005-06.

Educators in Redondo have established a goal to raise the proportion of A-through-G-ready students from 42 percent to 70 percent by the end of 2013.

Demographically speaking, Redondo Union is a diverse school. Roughly half of its students are white, about a quarter are Latino, 10 percent are Asian and 7 1/2 percent are black.

Of the efforts under way to raise college awareness, the most visible will be an expansion next fall of a college-readiness program for low-income, minority and other students in the middle.

Called Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), the current program consists of about 30 students in each grade who take a class with the same teacher all through high school. The primary focus of the program is to ensure that the students complete their A-through-G’s. About 90 percent of the students who stick to the program succeed.

At Redondo Union, the AVID instructor is AimieeGauvreau.

“I’m basically like their mother,” said Gauvreau, who is also an English teacher. “For the first two years I nag them, I hound them about getting good grades.”

Most of the students are the first in their families to apply to colleges, and often don’t have someone at home making the same demands.

Next year, the school will launch a second cohort of freshmen, meaning in four years the total number of AVID students will double.

“All our kids at Redondo, they want to do well. It’s just they get caught up with the typical high school world – socializing, having fun,” Gauvreau said. She added, “We have this great junior college close by, which is wonderful, but then at the same time, it’s a bit of a crutch.”