Mother Lode high schoolers are still taking fewer college preparatory classes than their peers in other regions, but many forge their own path to four-year universities.
Fewer than 25 percent of Tuolumne and Calaveras County high school students graduated with all courses required for admission to California's public universities last year, compared with 38 percent statewide, according to the latest state data.
The numbers show sharp divisions between rural counties and urban or suburban ones, where in some cases about half of high school graduates leave with the courses required for admission to public universities.
Tuolumne and Calaveras County educators said an increasing number of students choose to start at community colleges as a cost-saving measure, take the prerequisites there, and then transfer to universities.
However, school administrators are encouraging students to gear up early for four-year programs.
"That means meeting with them regularly and going over their educational plan," said Summerville High School Principal David Johnstone. "A lot of students, when they choose their own schedule, they limit themselves right there."
Courses required for admission to University of California and California State University in 2012 included four years of English, two years of laboratory science, at least three years of math and two years of a foreign language.
At Sonora High School, about 31 percent of graduates left with the required courses in 2012, the latest year with data available from the California Department of Education.
That portion of students is an improvement over 2006, when only 19 percent of Sonora High graduates had the prerequisites.
"It's something that we'll continue to work towards even as those numbers go up," said Sonora Union High School District Board of Trustees President Jeanie Smith.
At Summerville High School, 20 percent of students had taken all the UC and CSU prerequisite courses by the time they graduated in 2012. Summerville added new courses for next year and plans to expand the number of challenging classes even more, Johnstone said.
Twenty-eight percent of Calaveras High School's 2012 graduates had taken the prerequisite courses, as had 35 percent of students at Big Oak Flat-Groveland Unified School District, according to the state data.
The Connections Visual and Performing Arts Academy, also part of Summerville Union High School District, led the pack with 86 percent of graduates leaving college-ready. Bret Harte High School followed with 45 percent.
Data from the state education department comes with caveats and is sometimes incorrect. It placed the number of college-ready Summerville Union High School District graduates at 68 percent for 2011, when the real figure was closer to 38 percent, Johnstone said.
Furthermore, local students have found their way to four-year schools in other ways.
Nineteen-year-old Isaac Campos, who grew up in Sonora, will graduate from Columbia College next spring and enter the University of California, Davis, to study genetics.
He is leaving Columbia with two associate degrees, one in engineering and the other in biology.
"It was a lot cheaper," Campos said. "It was closer to home, so I could have an easier transition between high school and college.
"I don't think there are many 18-year-olds that can jump out and do college and have a job and be able to pay for all the stuff that they need," Campos said.
Data kept by schools suggests that most local students, like Campos, choose Columbia after graduation. From there, about 30 percent of Columbia students transfer to four-year schools.
In 2012, Sonora High surveyed the previous year's graduating class and reached 174 of 216 members. Fifty-seven were attending Columbia College, four attended Modesto Junior College and eight attended other community colleges.
Only a fifth of Sonora High students went directly to four-year universities, including 16 to California State University schools and five to University of California campuses. Many of the remaining students joined the military or the full-time workforce.
Though the results of the most recent survey aren't yet available, Sonora High Principal Todd Dearden has said more high-achieving students are attending junior colleges than in previous years.
Eighty of Bret Harte High School's approximately 150 new graduates have indicated they plan to attend a junior college, said Bret Harte Union High School District Superintendent and Principal Michael Chimente.
Junior colleges allow students to explore options and change majors without incurring high costs during the first years of study, Chimente said.
Some local students don't even wait to finish high school before they start taking community college classes.
Campos, who graduated from Sonora High last year, got a jump start with the Columbia Middle College program - which allows Sonora High juniors to enroll in Columbia College classes for free.
He took nine college courses during his senior year, rendering statistics about college preparatory classes moot in his case.
"I was able to get started on my actual degree before high school was even done with," he said. "I didn't feel like the high school was challenging me at all."
That's something Sonora High trustees are hoping to fix by beefing up their own curriculum with more academically rigorous classes and adding a summer "honors boot camp" for freshman.
"We're doing whatever we can to address those students who have a college-bound propensity and make sure they receive the education they're looking for," Smith said.