Though the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District boasts a graduation rate higher than the state average, data provided by the California Department of Education indicates more than 70 percent of students cannot get into a public four-year college or university.
Even with ample finances, a supportive family or exemplary grades (a survey of 1,600 students conducted by local high schoolers say these are the biggest barriers they face), 74 percent of graduates from Santa Maria's public schools would not be admitted to one of the state's 31 public four-year colleges or universities because they fall short of the minimum admissions requirements.
Speaking during a Wednesday night forum on education equity held at the Veterans Memorial Center in Santa Maria, a group of local high school students called on the small crowd of parents and educators to help create a college-going culture within the community.
Organized by Future Leaders of America, a regional nonprofit focused on empowering Latino students and youth, the students called on Santa Maria Joint Union to align their graduation requirements with the state's A-G requirements, a series of courses students must complete (with a 2.0 minimum GPA) to be admitted to a UC or Cal State campus.
"[We want] all of our students at every school to have the option — if they want to — to apply to a four-year college once they're seniors," Samantha Basulto, Pioneer Valley High School senior, told the room.
At a district or statewide level, meeting the A-G requirements is not required for high school graduation. California Education Code specifies 13 yearlong courses students must complete to receive a California high school diploma, with individual school districts retaining the authority to supplement those as they see fit.
Because Santa Maria Joint Union graduation requirements are not aligned with the A-G admission requirements, at the end of four years students often find themselves with a diploma but no path to a public college or university. Data provided by the California Department of Education indicates that in 2015, only 36.3 percent of Righetti, 29.5 percent of Pioneer Valley and 27.3 percent of Santa Maria High students completed the A-G requirements.
"It wasn't until I started high school in Santa Maria that I started learning about A-G requirements," said Dioceline Araujo, a Righetti High School senior who moved into the area from New Cuyama. Determined to get back on track after a tumultuous sophomore and junior year, Araujo said she met with a counselor to determine the viability of attending college out of high school.
"She looked at me and told me, 'Maybe it's time to focus on graduating and let go of the idea of A-G requirements,'" she recalled. "'Right now going to a university is not looking like a possibility for you.' I feel like it all just went out the window as I sat there and watched."
The group also called for an additional class — ethnic and gender studies — be included in the district's graduation requirements.
"This will [empower students] and they will see themselves in education," Pioneer Valley High School senior Lupita Rios told the room. "They will see that they belong in history and have a place in higher education."
Recognizing the importance of the conversation, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum John Davis said creating a college-going culture is more than just modifying graduation requirements at the high school level.
"College-going culture is really a K-16 proposition," he said. "It doesn't begin in high school or at the college admissions process; it begins at the earliest stages of a student's education. All of the institutions along the way ... have to be in a boat pulling the same way."
"It's a comprehensive prospect," he added. "It has to be nurtured and built at every stage."
Note: This article incorrectly identified one of the speakers. Lupita Rios also delivered the group's recommendations, not just Samantha Basulto as previously stated.