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Starting Over at 17 : A Success Story in State Anti-Dropout Program

February 26, 1989|MICHELE FUETSCH | Times Staff Writer

Last year Bobbi Allen rarely went to school and was failing all her classes at El Camino High School in La Mirada. She was hooked on drugs, she says. She did not eat. Her weight dropped to 73 pounds.

Suicide, she recalls, was constantly on her mind. "I wanted to die," said the frail-looking 17-year-old. "I didn't care. I wanted to (commit suicide) but I was too scared to slice my wrist. So it was more like I was doing drugs, trying to see how much I could do before it would kill me."

During that time, Bobbi recalls, she got a letter that had a picture of a kitten on it and had been signed by Shirley Neal, a teacher at El Camino. Bobbi could not remember who Neal was, but the letter and its message, "We miss you," stuck in her mind.

Grades Much Improved

So did other messages and countless telephone calls that Neal made to Bobbi, her mother and her grandmother, offering to help the troubled teen-ager.

Today, Bobbi is eight months pregnant. But she is off drugs and pulling down A's and B's in math, English, world culture and American government.

She is considered a success story in a state program targeted to students "highly at risk" of becoming permanent school dropouts. El Camino is one of 50 high schools in the state participating in a three-year experiment under SB 65 Outreach, a broad dropout-prevention program named after the state Senate bill that created it.

Funds for the experimental program are scheduled to run out in June unless the Legislature and Gov. George Deukmejian agree to renew it. Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles), who wrote the original bill that set up SB 65 Outreach, has introduced a proposal to renew funding.

At El Camino, the continuation high school for the Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District, all of the approximately 400 students are classified as at risk of dropping out.

"We're the end of the road for every single kid in our district who has had something abnormal that happened (in their lives)," Neal said. Sometimes it is a death in the family but most of the time, she said, it is abuse or neglect.

Common Faults Among Students

Family problems and poor self-image, said James D. Lisle, the school psychologist and family counselor who works with Neal, are the common denominators among El Camino's students. Bobbi's parents were divorced when she was 2. Her mother has been divorced three times. Neal estimates that parents of 75% of the El Camino students are divorced.

Among El Camino's at-risk enrollment, about half of the students are considered highly at risk because of personal problems or chronic absences, Neal said. She said she and Lisle concentrate on these students.

If a student is not attending school, Neal and Lisle stay in constant contact, throwing out lifelines and waiting for the moment, Neal said, when the student grabs one. The lifeline could be one of an array of services offered at the school, such as family counseling, special programs for pregnant teen-agers or referrals to drug or alcohol counseling.

"I guess we're sort of like an octopus, just many arms reaching out," Neal said.

Bobbi's grandmother, Barbara Howard, said she believes Bobbi would not be alive today if the school had not learned about her drug habit, notified the family, and helped get her into a drug counseling program.

"I don't think she'd be with us anymore," said Howard, her voice filling with emotion. "They didn't give up on her."

Some highly-at-risk students are gang members who are not attending school because they are disaffected with society and education, said Johnna Moore, director of secondary education in the district. Neal has recently started a small alternative instructional program in a neighborhood of a gang whose members are not coming to school.

Mother's Recollections

Bobbi is typical, say Neal and Lisle, of a student who is experiencing such an emotional or drug-related crisis that she seems beyond the reach of educators and people who love her.

Sue Allen remembers the endless arguments that she and daughter Bobbi had over school. "I didn't want her to have to go through the same things that I did," said Sue Allen, who got pregnant and married at 15, and does not have a high school diploma. She does secretarial work for a trucking firm. Sue Allen, Bobbi, and an 11-year-old son live with Sue Allen's parents.

"It would basically go in one ear and out the other," Sue Allen said of her efforts to talk to Bobbi. "So after a while you get tired of repeating the same things over and over again. What else can I do? It was to that point. I didn't know what to do about it."

Bobbi can pinpoint the date that her own life became so painful she turned to drugs. Her father and mother had begun to see each other, but broke up again. "That's when everything went . . . ," Bobbi said, her voice trailing off. "I wanted my mom, my dad and the whole family, with the picket fence."

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