LONG BEACH — Despite previous disagreements, city and school district officials are planning a joint approach to the problem of school dropouts that could become a model for the state.
Under the plan--called Cities in Schools--the city, district, private industry and local service agencies will join in trying to keep students studying by providing them with existing social services such as housing, recreation and health.
"What's unique about it is that it's such a broad partnership," said E. Tom Giugni, superintendent of the Long Beach Unified School District. "The issues that schools are facing simply can't be solved by schools alone."
Nancy Johnson, special services manager for the Department of Parks and Recreation and coordinator of the city's anti-dropout effort, called the plan one of the most exciting she has seen. "For the first time it provides a holistic approach to (dealing with) at-risk kids," she said.
For two years, city and school district officials have been at odds over who should pay for added classroom facilities required to serve a burgeoning student population. The school district maintains that the city should shoulder some of the burden when it approves new developments, but city officials have steadfastly refused. Last year the district filed a lawsuit on the matter--which it eventually withdrew--and recently the debate erupted into an angry war of words.
Participation in the joint dropout project, planners say, should help cool tempers. And, they say, it should provide an opportunity to reach potential dropouts well before they drop out by dealing with some of the non-academic issues that are barriers to their success.
"There are problems that affect a kid's performance at school (that have nothing to do with school)," said Mike Bowles, principal of Marshall Junior High School where the program is expected to begin as a pilot on Jan. 1.
Often, he said, the solution consists in part of personalizing the school environment to communicate to students that the institution cares about them. "What this program proposes to do," he said, "is bring a lot of resources from the city itself into the school setting."
Based on East Coast
Organizers say they decided to get involved in the project after being approached during the summer by Andrea McAleenan, director of the newly created western region of Cities in Schools Inc. Based in Washington, D.C., the independent, nonprofit organization--founded 10 years ago as an outgrowth of a storefront education project that began in Harlem in the late 1960s--has set up similar programs in about 20 cities throughout the East and South.
It recently came to California, McAleenan said, because of the "cutting edge thinking" for which the state is noted. She chose Long Beach as the western kickoff point, she said, because of the city's diverse racial and cultural mix.
"We want Long Beach to be sort of a laboratory," McAleenan said, adding that a similar program is being planned in Sacramento. "We're trying to coordinate the city's existing resources in a more personalized and accountable fashion so that you can get help to the families and students who need it."
Marshall Junior High was chosen for the pilot project, Giugni said, in part because racial tensions and a series of campus skirmishes last year indicated the existence of students in need of special attention.
130 in First Group
Initially, he said, the project will involve about 130 students who have shown poor attendance, social alienation, inadequate academic performance or other behaviors associated with students who later drop out. The students will be chosen on the basis of recommendations from teachers and counselors.
"The idea is to . . . intervene (early) where the problems can be identified and the cycle broken," Bowles said.
Once chosen, he said, each student will be assessed to determine what specific impediments exist to his or her success in school. The students will then be referred to the providers of appropriate existing social services--either on campus or off--designed to eliminate those impediments. Such services, according to planners, could be as diverse as participation in city sports leagues, child care for younger siblings who interfere with studying, free meals, job training, summer employment or temporary housing.
"Obviously, if a kid doesn't have adequate housing, he's not going to go home and study," Bowles said.
McAleenan said she is in the process of setting up a board of directors to independently govern the new program. Initial funding, she said, came from a federal grant. Any future money required to administer the program, she said, will be solicited from people in private industry who are concerned about the problem and are willing to help.
"This is our future generation," said Howard Hargrove, chairman of the Long Beach Private Industry Council, which has participated in the planning meetings. "Everybody I talk to is concerned. Dropouts are a tragedy."