By Paul Gullixson
Fifteen years ago, Ruben Armiñana set a high bar for his campus — and raised a few eyebrows in the process — claiming that Sonoma State University was fast becoming California’s public “Ivy League” school.
That was pretty heady stuff for an institution commonly referred to as “Granola U” at one time.
Now, SSU’s president is at it again by encouraging local high schools to raise their standards and their vision even during times of budget cuts.
He’s appealing to school districts to not just avoid lowering graduation standards but to go the other direction — raise graduation requirements so that they align with the entrance requirements of the UC and CSU systems.
Unrealistic and unfair? Not so, Armiñana said during a lunch with The Press Democrat editorial board last week.
“I think if Santa Rosa (schools) would do it, others would do it,” he said.
Armiñana was responding in particular to a recent Press Democrat report that only about one in four Sonoma County high school graduates met the requirements to apply to the University of California or California State University. Statewide, about 35 percent of students have completed the so-called “A through G requirements” to apply to a CSU or UC school and other colleges.
Many fear that requiring students to be college ready before receiving a high school diploma is unfair to those who are not college-bound. Moreover, it would drive up the dropout rate.
But that has not been the experience in San Jose, Armiñana contends. Since 1998, all high school graduates there are required to complete the UC entrance requirements. Over the first six years, the San Jose Unified School District saw its graduation rate increase from 71 percent to 74 percent. Grade point averages also have risen.
Starting this fall, high school freshmen in San Francisco Unified School District schools will have to meet the same requirements. For example, students will need to take four years of English, three years of math, two years of lab science and two years of a foreign language.
But Armiñana, who fled Cuba at 14 and knows the challenges of being a non-English-speaking immigrant tossed into the American school system, says he’s not just interested in just seeing students ready for college. He wants to see them ready for careers in a world that’s demanding more background in math, science and technology at almost every level. One can’t even work on a car these days without this kind of background, he says.
In that sense, the UC requirements are a “work-force curriculum for the careers that are out there.”
“It’s a different world,” he said. Under the current system, “we are preparing students for jobs that are disappearing very quickly. We are not giving them the tools for the careers of the 21st century and the colleges of the 21st century.”
The lower expectations contained in current graduation requirements “is a great disservice,” he said. “In the end, it’s harmful.”
Not harmful for everyone, however. For instance, Armiñana is quick to commend the quality of students who transfer from Santa Rosa Junior College to Sonoma State. “The students that transfer from SRJC do very, very well,” he notes. But each year that is only about 600 to 700 students out of more than 35,000 students at the JC.
“That’s a pretty low percentage,” he said. “In that sense, the master plan (of having the JC be a feeder school for the UC system) is not working.”
Sitting on the governor’s desk is a plan that would make it easier for those transfers to occur. Senate Bill 1440 would require California community colleges to align core requirements so that credits are transferrable to UC and CSU schools. This would cut down on confusion over what’s required to transfer to which colleges, eliminate wasted hours on classes that may need to be retaken and, overall, make it easier for students to move on to four-year schools.
The governor should sign it.
So what are the obstacles to this grand vision of streamlining students from high school to college and/or from junior college to a four-year college? Two things: fear and funding.
There’s plenty of the former and little of the latter.
School districts will argue that requiring all students to be college ready requires providing Saturday and after-hour classes, tutors, summer “bridge” programs and other safety nets to make sure that lower-performing students get the help they need to keep pace. Such nets were in place in San Jose when they did this. Given recent dramatic cuts in funding, schools are operating without a net.
Is it possible for the community as a whole to step up and meet some of these needs on a voluntary basis? It’s possible. But that, too, takes coordination — and a certain amount of fearlessness and willingness to try things that are different.
But everything is different. Students who enter SSU now certainly know that, Armiñana says.
“They come looking for a job now . . .” he says. “They don’t come looking for themselves.”
We need to help them.
– Paul Gullixson is editorial director for The Press Democrat. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 521-5282.