NATIONAL CITY — Jose Serrano quit school for the usual reasons. "I was doing all right for a while," he said. "But I just wasn't getting anywhere . . . I just lost my interest" in school.
With too much time on his hands, he did the usual things--"sleep, get up, go over to my girlfriend's house. It's all right."
But when a call from guidance counselor Tom Williams came about two months ago, the 19-year-old Serrano made an unusual decision. He agreed to sign a contract with the Sweetwater Union High School District that binds him to 20 hours of schoolwork every week, five of them on a radically new and extraordinarily successful computer named PLATO.
Technically known as Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations, PLATO has recaptured 88% of the high school dropouts who have given the system a try at 10 other California high schools in the last four years.
For the South Bay's only high school district, where the dropout rate is a sizable 27%--and even higher among its many Latino students--PLATO offers the hope of providing an education to teens who might otherwise end up in low-paying jobs, on welfare or in jail.
The system will actually turn a profit for the Sweetwater district once 230 students are recruited to the three newly established PLATO centers at three different district high schools--a goal officials are predicting will be easily accomplished.
"It is phenomenal," said Pamela Wright, coordinator of the PLATO project for California State University, Sacramento, which runs the program. "It's a little difficult to digest."
PLATO is built around a bank of eight MacIntosh computers in a classroom at Sweetwater High School in National City. Each personal computer is tied into a main-frame computer that offers the full school curricula at every level from kindergarten to medical school.
"You could actually sit down at the computer in kindergarten, finish the sixth grade, go on to middle school, get a high school diploma, enroll in college, do graduate work and then post-graduate work," Wright said.
For students like Serrano, nothing so intricate is needed. PLATO offers all his required course work, dispensed in small, simple doses, with plenty of eye-catching graphics and heaps of praise.
Courses, known in computer parlance as "strands," are broken into about 20 subjects, or "clusters." As Serrano, an 11-grader who works at a 9th-grade ability level, completes each cluster, he checks it off on a sheet that charts his progress.
The computer tests him to see how much he knows, then retests to determine how much he has learned. If Serrano answers fewer than 87% of PLATO's questions correctly, he is given a "tutorial" in each subject. Later, he is tested for retention of the concepts.
Teachers can check on any student's activity by signing on to a computer terminal and following along.
The program is designed with the typical dropout in mind. Interaction with the computer staves off boredom. Individual computers keep the student's shortcomings from becoming public. Visible progress builds self-esteem.
"They don't have the embarrassment of being in a group environment, where people see that they can't read, that they can't do math," Wright said.
"They need to leave feeling good," she added. "They may not have learned anything more than two-plus-two or three-plus-two, but they have actively engaged in a positive learning experience, and they've left that room knowing more than when they came in."
Studies show that most dropouts are unable to learn in the traditional way, listening to a teacher six hours a day.
"Across America, we teach in the auditory mode," Wright said. "There are truly learners who cannot learn in an auditory mode. That is usually the individual who has difficulty learning in school, who develops behavior problems and ends up on the street."
Dropouts tend to learn better visually. PLATO offers visual lessons, capturing students' attention with flashy graphics.
"Being in here for two hours a day doesn't really seem that long," Serrano said. "Being in school for six hours does."
PLATO occupies each student for an hour each day. During the second hour that he is required to spend at Sweetwater, he studies or works with teachers. The rest of the day is his, except for two hours he must spend doing homework.
That freedom is vital to returnees like 18-year-old Sharon Webb, who quit school to manage a yogurt shop, and 17-year-old Diane Padilla, who transferred into the program when all-day school, work and caring for her year-old son became too taxing.
"I'm learning a lot faster, because I'm individualized," Padilla said. "When I need help I can get it, without having to wait.
"I worked so hard to get up there. I went to 11 years of school trying real hard and there was no reason for me not to finish what I had tried. That was one of my goals."