Saundra Farley and Gloria Jimenez, seniors at Jefferson High School in South-Central Los Angeles, remember well the assembly of the new 10th-grade class less than three years ago.
There were more than 1,000 students. "The whole auditorium was full, and people were standing in the back and in the aisles," Saundra said.
Last week the same group, now nearing graduation, assembled again in the same auditorium. This time, they all fit neatly into the center section. Only 350 students were left.
The seniors at Jefferson refer to themselves as the survivors because so many of their friends have dropped out, for so many reasons.
Desire for Money
Some are working nights at fast-food restaurants for a little money. Some are working days, selling drugs and making lots of money. Some are at home, taking care of their babies. Some have traveled back to Mexico to be with their families. Other have traveled no farther than the corner at 41st Street and Hooper Avenue, across the street from the school door.
For most of American history, it has been a truism, proudly repeated, that an ever greater percentage of students were graduating from high school. But since 1970, it is no longer a truism. That year, 75% of students earned high school diplomas. Since then, the percentage has gone no higher and actually has slipped a bit in recent years, says the National Center for Education Statistics.
California may boast that its fast-changing, high-tech economy leads the nation, but about 31% of its teen-agers drop out of school between the ninth and 12th grades, according to the state Assembly Office of Research. For the class of 1983, 119 high schools suffered a dropout rate of more than 40%, and two-thirds of those were in suburban or rural school districts.
Majority Drop Out
But it is the city high schools in mostly black or Latino neighborhoods that continue to experience staggering dropout rates. Jefferson High, in a highly transient section of Los Angeles, loses about two-thirds of its students between the 10th and 12th grades, according to school district figures.
Why are so many young people quitting school? In interviews, counselors, teachers and school officials who see the problem first-hand admitted to being puzzled.
Most noted that schools are a "reflection of the community." In chaotic and demoralized families, or impoverished households in which parents are scraping to survive, students do not get the steady support they need to succeed in school.
Schools also reflect the larger society, they added, where making money, lots of it, is valued more than education. One teacher reported that last fall, a former Jefferson student now in the drug business tossed a wad of cash into the air at a football game. Others commented on students who have returned to campus sporting gold rings, earrings and watches. This is the lesson--that quick money can be made in the drug business--that too many teen-agers are learning in Los Angeles, officials said.
For their part, the seniors at Jefferson said they were inspired to stay in school by the bad examples around them. Their brothers and sisters and friends have left school, and many are now hanging out on the street or are stuck in dead-end jobs.
"A lot of my friends got pregnant. Some had to leave to go to work to support their families. And some just didn't like school and quit," Gloria Jimenez said. "I could see what their future was going to be like, and I didn't want that." She has earned a 3.95 grade-point average and plans to enroll at UCLA in the fall.
"A lot of people get behind, they fail a class and they give up," said Jeffery Adams, another 12th-grader. "They think they can make it on their own.
"You see so many people going bad, friends and brothers and other people. But I wanted to be different. I was determined to make it here."
Saundra Farley said she had a child last year and returned to complete her school work this year.
Easy Drug Money
"I have friends who are selling cocaine," she said. "That's the No. 1 thing--making easy money. They don't think ahead. They think that's going to last forever.
"But I need an education because I want to make something for myself and my baby." She plans to enroll at California State University, Dominquez Hills, next fall.
Despite the problems in the neighborhood and the huge outflow of students, both teachers and students say Jefferson has improved greatly in the last three years. They credit Principal Francis Nakano, who on his first day in July, 1982, arrived to discover that the administration wing of the school had been burned down the night before.
A stern disciplinarian, Nakano has brought order to what had been a crumbling school, they said. He is credited with clearing out the gangs and drugs and cleaning the graffiti from the walls. In the process, he also has developed a good rapport with students.