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A Turnabout for School Dropouts : Many Return Under Programs Offered by L.A. District

June 19, 1985|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

Starting today, about 26,000 of them will be saluted, showered with gifts and admonished about the future. They are the ones who made it--seniors who will graduate from Los Angeles' public high schools this week.

But for Joe Zuniga, Kevin Braggs, Alicia Bennett and thousands of others like them, this isn't a time to celebrate--or simply give a heartfelt sigh of relief. They have been too busy becoming parents, raising families, hanging out, getting over brushes with the law, looking for jobs or making up for lost time.

They are the dropouts.

What happened to these three--and to their predecessors from the '60s, '70s and '80s--today happens to the majority in some Los Angeles high schools, perhaps more than 60% in some inner-city schools. Overall, it's estimated that more than 40% of those who start senior high school in the city's unified school district don't make it to graduation.

Yet the statistics don't tell the whole story. Sooner or later--sometimes much later--many dropouts get tired of paying the price for leaving school. And they try to drop back in, through a variety of old and new programs offered by the school district. Whatever route they choose, dropouts generally say it's a lot tougher than their disappearing acts. Nor does trying for a comeback entirely erase their regret.

'Trying to Do Better'

For example, Zuniga, who dropped out of San Fernando High School last year, said he will feel "pretty bad" on graduation day about "not being up there with that cap and gown." But Zuniga, who is learning welding at the Pacoima Skills Center, found satisfaction that "at least I'm trying to do better with my life." He added that he also uses the back yard of an aunt's house to do "auto body work on the side."

Like other dropouts who talked to View, Zuniga spoke easily, even eagerly, about himself. Of the 22 who were interviewed at skills centers, continuation schools or through the new Dropout Outreach program, few seemed to gloss over mistakes and embarrassments, even crimes.

Zuniga, 18, figures he accumulated a D average in high school, partly because of "bad learning in elementary and junior high school." Though he learned little, like other dropouts interviewed, he kept being promoted to the next grade and falling farther and farther behind, he said.

Zuniga struck a recurring theme when he said he felt his school days were hampered by a noisy, disruptive atmosphere in classes and "hassles from gangs." Sometimes, too, teachers were less than sympathetic because they thought he was a gang member. "I never considered myself a gang member. I never wanted to be a gang member," he said.

Gangs and random violence showed up in many forms in the lives of dropouts. Sometimes they were active members or participants. Sometimes they were victims.

Pulling back his thick black hair from his forehead, Gabriel Ramirez, 17, revealed a jagged X-shaped scar, evidence of a mugging on the streets of Pacoima, he said, adding, "They thought I was going to die."

Ramirez, who was attending San Fernando High School as a potential member of the class of '86, has fallen behind because of truancy, he said. Run-ins with the law have also hurt. He has been on probation for petty theft and once was charged with illegal possession of a gun, he said. Now he is catching up at the Pacoima Skills Center and, like Zuniga, is studying welding.

Patrick Scott, an 18-year-old who is trying to make up for missing graduation last year by attending the 99th Street branch of the Jordan-Locke Community Adult School, estimated that he got "kicked out of a lot of schools, 12 or 13" because "I got involved in gangs." He was bounced for "fighting every day, bringing weapons to school, gambling, shooting dice," he said, adding he has also been arrested for carrying a concealed firearm. He finally dropped out, he said, because "I just got tired of going because every time I went to another school I always ended up fighting another gang. . . . Back then I had a car, I wasn't staying in that school anyway."

Scott said he has cut out his gang activity and hopes to get a high school degree because "I know now there's not going to be any real good jobs I can get without a diploma."

Daniel Montoya, 24, smiled a lot as he talked about dropping out in the last month of the 12th grade in 1979 because his grades were too low for graduation.

"I went to school everyday," he recalled. "I was there everyday but half of my classes I didn't go to. I got along with everybody just great. There were gangs but it wasn't a problem for me."

At about the time he dropped out, the course of Montoya's life for the next few years was set.

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