SMUSD Seeks to Help Students Reach College That Fits Best

Although San Marino High School students score higher on college readiness than their peers in similar districts, the increasing competitiveness of higher education admissions across the board has resulted in varying rates of acceptance to their choice schools.
The prime takeaway from this data, as presented to the San Marino Unified School District Board of Education recently, is that SMUSD administrators will continue to work to ensure students apply to and choose institutions that best fit their aspirations and personalities. A popular anecdote, cited by Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction Jason Kurtenbach during his presentation, is about a student who made headlines several years ago when he was accepted at all eight Ivy League institutions, but ultimately attended North Carolina’s Davidson College.
“That’s really what the focus is at San Marino High School,” Kurtenbach told the school board. “It’s getting kids to the place that works the best for them.”
In a look at the performance of San Marino students, Kurtenbach showed that 82.8% had cleared the state’s bar for college and career readiness in the 2018-19 academic year, compared with 82% at La Cañada Unified School District and 81.2% at Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District. The latter two were chosen, among others, for comparison because of their overall similarity to the SMUSD.
That academic year, SMHS offered 11 honors courses and 13 AP courses to students. Out of the 834 AP exams its students took that year, 87% scored a 3 or better. (AP tests have a high score of 5, with 3 considered the benchmark for passing and being considered for college credit.) The mean SAT score that year was 1,337 and the average ACT score was 28.4. The school also boasted eight National Merit semifinalists that year.
Since at least 2015, SMHS students have averaged more than 10 college applications per year, with a high last year of 11.47. The acceptance rate has varied much more on a yearly basis and was perhaps more helpfully condensed into a five-year average of 42%.
“We do see a trend moving toward more applications per student over the course of time,” Kurtenbach said. “That could be due to a multitude of reasons. Primarily, though, it’s due to the fact that getting into college is now far more competitive than it was even five years ago. It is completely global.”
Throughout the last five years, SMHS students’ rate of acceptance to UCLA, USC and UC Berkeley have been above those institutions’ general acceptance rates, with the exception of its fall below the average at USC for 2018.
College acceptance is a tricky metric, Kurtenbach explained, because institutions can shift priorities as frequently as every semester and will sometimes make selections based on relatively arbitrary reasons. Out-of-state students, for example, often move up in consideration because of the state schools’ ability to charge higher fees. On other occasions, selections can be influenced by an institution’s need to fill out membership in athletic or arts programming.
“Sometimes they lost the oboist and they need an oboist, so they’re looking for an oboist with a 1,600 [on the SAT] and a 4.0” grade-point average, Kurtenbach said. “It can be as arbitrary as that.”
Resident Miriam Quan, mother of an SMHS graduate now working on a doctorate in mechanical engineering at UCLA, bemoaned SMHS not having a spot for him to take AP physics at the time, a fact that she said complicated his aspirations after high school.
“It made it extremely hard for him to get into a competitive school, even being a National Merit finalist,” Quan said, adding that she felt that even now, more than a decade later, the school could do more with AP availability.
Kurtenbach, speaking generally, acknowledged that he is always looking for a way to improve the SMUSD’s academic offerings instead of standing pat as the district annually receives the state’s acclaim in its annual evaluations. In particular, he and SMHS Principal Issaic Gates have been working closely to improve the student experience at the high school.
“The best strength that we have is that we know we’re doing pretty good, but we always want to do better,” Kurtenbach said. “I’ve been able to, over the last two months, assist Dr. Gates in working on really exciting initiatives to move forward to give our students even more opportunity and a leg up on what is a really competitive world now in getting into any college or university.
“The thing that is the hardest for us is our patience. We want it right now because we know that it affects our kids right now, but we’re working as quickly as possible to bring some of these new, exciting things to bear. Thanks to this gentleman’s leadership, we’re going to get there,” Kurtenbach said, referring to Gates.

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