San Dieguito to now offer choice between grades and credit/no credit

A message in chalk at the district office.

In a unanimous vote on May 14, the San Dieguito Union High School District voted to alter its grading policy and give students a choice to opt into letter grades or earn credit/no credit.

The board made the decision following a public outcry that included thousands of petition signatures, hundreds of emails, a car rally, threats of board member recalls and messages chalked on the driveway in front of the district office as well as in front of SDUHSD President Beth Hergesheimer’s home.

Students and parents argued that erasing student grades did not preserve student progress or allow students to build their GPAs which could negatively impact college admission and merit scholarships.

“I think choice is the only option, it’s a win-win for everyone,” said SDUHSD Vice President Mo Muir, who made the motion for staff to bring back the policy and the procedure that would provide the choice of hold harmless grades and credit/no credit for all district high schools.

“I haven’t heard one thing said by anyone against choice,” Muir said at the virtual meeting which was live-streamed on YouTube with over 300 people watching. “I can’t believe anyone here tonight can’t recognize this is what the parents and the students want.”

For those students who opt to receive grades on their transcripts, their grades can be improved but they will not be lower than those earned by March 13 for semester-basis high schools; for the academy high schools, grades can not drop lower than third-quarter grades earned through April 3. The middle schools will continue using the credit/no credit system.

Board members acknowledged in these unprecedented times, there was perhaps no perfect solution as each option had its merits and drawbacks. SDUHSD board member Joyce Dalessandro said she heard compelling reasons for doing things differently than was originally planned, SDUHSD Clerk Melissa Mossy was enthusiastic in her support of choice and Hergesheimer’s “yes” vote was more reserved, “in the spirit of finding common ground.”

SDUHSD Trustee Kristin Gibson voted in favor of the change although she said she has a slight preference for credit/no credit. She wanted to ensure that their decision will not cause harm to students who now for a month have been operating with the understanding that they were in a credit/no credit system. She also requested that counselors be available to help students make the decision between grades and credit/no credit.

“Truly in the end I don’t think this decision will have a significant impact either way as some might be worried. I do believe it is far more likely that colleges will look at transcripts and refine their admission criteria so that no student whose GPA is slightly lowered would be disadvantaged nor would a student who chose credit/no credit,” Gibson said. “I do feel like this situation has, unfortunately, fragmented our community at a time when I hoped it would’ve brought us together.”

The student board representatives, although they were allowed to do so, decided not to vote on the issue as many are seniors and said it does not impact them personally. Canyon Crest Academy representative Jack Farfel said he heard from a lot of people that credit/no credit works for them as it gives them a lot of relief during the time of remote learning while Wendy Miyazaki, the LCC student representative, said she heard from lot of juniors and sophomores who said they would prefer the grades.

“I have heard from a lot of kids that it’s really helping them to not have to worry about their GPA right now when they’re doing the best they can in their extenuating circumstances,” said Grace Keefe, the San Dieguito High School Academy representative. “That being said, I can see all the points here and I’m glad I’m not the one making the decision.”

SDUHSD Superintendent Robert Haley said that he and the staff were never opposed to developing a grading alternative if directed by the board. Haley said the district made the decision to go to credit/no credit to ensure no student would be adversely impacted by school closure. As the school closure has extended on, he said district staff has learned more about how the decision is impacting students and families.

Haley said since the April board meeting, he has read hundreds of emails, had conversations with many parents and students and been online with students to discuss their concerns, anxieties and stressors during this time. SDUHSD Associate Superintendent of Educational Services Bryan Marcus said he has also been working to engage with students and parents.

“The district does not want to harm students in any way,” Marcus said. “All of our decision-making was anchored on student and staff wellness, equity and making the best choice for all of our students based on the information we had. We don’t have a crystal ball, we don’t know what the future holds and a lot of our colleges are still trying to find out what happens next for them.”

Haley said while connectivity with distance learning is very high in the district, individual learning environments are different for every student. He said he learned some students were doing distance learning on their phone and some are having to babysit younger siblings while trying to learn. Another young man Haley spoke to told him he was “crushing it.”

“There are some students who may come out of this accelerated, who have embraced the asynchronous instruction and re-organized their day for when they learn best,” Haley said. “Others have expressed that is is difficult to stay motivated in the online world and there are a lot of distractions.”

For the May 14 meeting, the board instituted a new protocol for public comment which required those who wished to provide public comment to fill out a form before 5 p.m. the day before the meeting. There were 174 written comments submitted and 34 requests to speak. The board limited public comment to 20 minutes and randomly selected 10 people to speak for two minutes. All written comments were given to the board in advance and posted on the website—one included a 67-page presentation prepared by parents.

“Per the Brown Act I believe you are not allowed to limit us to 10 speakers,” said LCC parent Sean O’Hara, one of the 10 selected speakers. “You should hear everyone who has asked to speak.”

The Brown Act guarantees the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies. The act does state that local agencies may adopt “reasonable regulations” including limiting the total amount of time allocated for public testimony and for each individual speaker. In the past, the board has voted to waive the 20-minute time limit.

The overwhelming majority of the 174 submitted comments asked for choice.

In her written comments Torrey Pines junior Stella Bruce said the shift to credit/no credit has affected her negatively as she is taking a “rigorous academic class load”—she said she studied tirelessly to earn the best grades in her four AP classes and was devastated when she heard the decision that the district was moving to credit/no credit, “I felt as if all my hard work was for nothing.”

“In trying to protect those that you believe don’t have equal access to a good learning environment, you are disadvantaging those students that want the chance to earn grades and show the work and effort they have put into the studies for the second half of the year,” said parent Victoria Bloise. “That is inequitable, and takes away choice, a very undemocratic decision.”

La Costa Canyon parent Katrina Young said while colleges may not penalize students for the district’s grading policy and may find a new metric for assigning merit aid, she empathized with students who are worried about their future.

“In order to give our children the best chance of success, I would respectfully ask the board to consider allowing each student to weigh their options and make the best choice for themselves given present circumstances,” Young said. “After all, critical thinking and freedom of thought is the ultimate goal of an education.”

A few of the submitted comments asked for the policy to remain the same. One anonymous parent said her daughter’s teachers are not teaching at all and she learns little from the online classes and struggles through homework and quizzes. A student named Joe provided comment that it is unfair at this point in the year to now offer a choice and for students to possibly have to explain to colleges why they chose credit/no credit over having a grade.

“I find it odd how the school year is almost to an end and now you decide to discuss this topic. I believe this discussion is long overdue and things should just stay the way they are,” Joe wrote. “Having this change is just another curveball for us in this difficult time. Life is already hard enough during this pandemic and telling students this new option can cause anxiety and more stress.”

Following the meeting, a student posted another petition asking the board to revert back to credit/no credit, gathering nearly 1,000 signatures overnight. One of the 2,200 signatures at press time was Torrey Pines junior Stephan Lukashev, who said that credit/no credit appeared to be the most equitable solution for all students under the circumstances.

“What the district has done is tell us, ‘this is an unprecedented and uncertain time’ and that they will provide as much stability as possible,” wrote Stephan, who said he missed the deadline for submitting public comment. “Yet with what they decided today, they undermined their own words and appealed to the few that want this suspicious change and instead of stability, we now have more turmoil than ever.”