Every Saturday morning at Maclay Junior High School in Pacoima, students who are failing or who chronically ditch classes or who are discipline problems, according to school officials, gather at the front gates and clamor to be let on campus.
They are part of the "Be a Better Person Breakfast Club," a special counseling program that provides extra attention to students who, for a variety of reasons, are potential dropouts.
Over orange juice, cereal, doughnuts and milk, the Maclay students discuss their problems, work at improving math and reading skills and have a little fun by videotaping their own news program.
"Attacking the dropout problem in high school is too late," said Sally Fujii, Los Angeles school district adviser. "Educators are starting to focus more attention to elementary and junior high students who are having problems that indicate they may be dropouts of the future."
High Dropout Rate
Los Angeles city schools have one of the highest attrition rates in the nation. About 44% of the students who enter never graduate.
About two years ago, a dropout-prevention effort called the Junior High School Student Assistance Program was established. Students with problems regarding behavior, attendance or academic performance are directed there. There are assistance programs at each of the district's 73 junior high schools.
Porter Junior High in Granada Hills has an after-school class that assistance-program students say with pride is "for members only." At Mulholland Junior High in Van Nuys, they learn how to tackle new challenges through a scuba-diving club.
Parents tell school officials that the program has started to produce positive changes in their children, including better grades.
At Maclay, simply being identified as a student who would benefit from the extra counseling is not enough to get into the Breakfast Club. School psychologist Bill St. Johns, the club coordinator, said he hand-picks the students, finding potential club members among playground loners and campus rebels, as well as among students with academic and behavior problems.
Once a student has been chosen for the Breakfast Club, St. Johns becomes a sort of personal guardian angel. "If I do anything wrong, he seems to know about it before I can tell him," said one seventh-grader.
St. Johns usually hands out written invitations Friday to the Saturday meeting. On a recent Saturday, 12 students were on hand for the Breakfast Club. As many as 20 sometimes attend.
St. Johns and his wife try to arrive half an hour before the scheduled 9 a.m. starting time. But no matter how early they get to the school, "they're always waiting for us," said Kathy St. Johns.
Once the doors swing open, the students make a bee-line to sign the attendance sheet. Then they make a dash for the food.
Although St. Johns and other assistance-program counselors get paid for time they spend with students, the school district doesn't supply food. The St. Johnses dig into their own pockets for that.
"I try to save a little money by getting unused cartons of milk from the cafeteria," St. Johns said.
Once the club members pour their cereal and finish the argument over who gets the jelly doughnuts, the work begins. Over breakfast, club members discuss current events. Many have already taken a peek at a newspaper. The conversation ranges from the new superintendent of schools to the Iran- contra hearings.
The conversation soon turns to school as St. Johns asks the students how their week went. Most mumble, "OK," or "Not bad," but St. Johns is persistent. He mentions that two of the club members were not in an afternoon class the day before.
The group perks up as the two accused members try to explain their absence. After a few moments, St. Johns asks the group to give him reasons why students avoid school.
"They're lazy," said one youth.
"They don't like the teacher," said another.
"Too many hassles," someone added.
One by one, St. Johns discusses each of the answers and suggests strategies that might solve the problem.
As the dishes are cleared away, the conversations end and math games begin.
By 11, the students are getting fidgety. Sensing the growing restlessness, St. Johns knows it is time to start working with the video equipment.
Each week, the students put on their own news show, complete with a sportscaster and a weather person. Stories are taken from the newspaper or are reports on community or campus events.