Two school districts in southern California recently set up special schools for 8th-graders who don’t meet the criteria to enter high school. Each has different criteria and a different educational program than Chicago does. Here’s how they operate.

In the Long Beach Unified School District, 8th-graders are retained for failing more than one subject—even if that subject is industrial arts or algebra. “That’s a sign that this student is not capable or disciplined enough to go on to high school,” says Dorothy Harper, area superintendent.

Long Beach Preparatory Academy, now in its second year, enrolled about 323 students last fall for a one-year program. Students take the standard course load but get untraditional instruction. “It’s all project- based experiential learning,” says Principal Toni Issa Lahera. For instance, students submit quarterly projects in every subject. After studying the United States Constitution, some wrote skits or newspaper articles dramatizing events from the time period.

The idea is to get them more interested in school, Issa Lahera explains. “Kids, if they’ve had failures over a period of time, it seems hopeless. They don’t see any reason why school should be a place they want to be.”

Each year, about 8 percent of the district’s 8th-graders have been referred to Long Beach Prep. Students who fail the program are sent to alternative schools. Of 450 referred to the academy last year, 400 enrolled, 287 went on to high school, and 21 failed, Issa Lahera reports. The remaining 100 or so students either left the district or were referred to special education or programs for disruptive youth. The district enrolls over 90,000 students.

Oceanside Unified School District opened a similar school last fall, enrolling about 14 percent of last year’s 8th-graders. Students at Clair Burgener Academy are officially 9th-graders, and can earn some elective credit. There are no extracurricular activities.

A new superintendent launched the program in response to pressure from the community, which is located near Camp Pendelton Marine Base, says Burgener Principal Linda Goldstein. “A lot of families come and go. They said, ‘Our kids are behind when they leave California.’ They felt we needed tougher standards for the 8th-graders.” The district enrolls about 21,000.

To enter high school in Oceanside, 8th-graders must earn a grade point average of at least C- and meet minimum requirements on two of three standardized tests, which cover math, reading and writing.

Grade-point average “really is a truer reflection of the students abilities,” says Cindy Sabato, the district’s public information officer. However, since the state now ranks schools by test scores and parents use them to select schools, “We needed to make those test scores as important to the students as they are to us,” she adds.

Burgener students get an eight-hour school day, including an hour each of English, writing, math and science. Students also take a study-skills class and one on building literacy through newspapers. Of 194 students enrolled in the fall, 60 earned promotion to high school in January.

“Now we have the students here who have the serious struggles with reading or math,” notes Goldstein. Second semester, the school carved out an additional hour for reading and another for math.

“We know we’re going to struggle with the question, What will happen with students who still don’t meet the criteria at the end of the school year?” Sabato says. “Do we start a 9-10 academy? Do we send them on to high school? Or do we do something else altogether?”

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