A new study of dropout rates released this month shows that more than one in five high school students in the Montebello Unified School District's class of 1988 failed to graduate.
"This is serious," school administrator Charles W. Norton told the Board of Education as he revealed results of the district's most comprehensive study of high school dropout rates.
"We have to come up with some solutions to bring these figures down," he said during a presentation that included a variety of recommendations for identifying and counseling students who are at risk of dropping out.
Norton, however, stressed in a telephone interview later that other studies show that Montebello Unified is doing better than other districts in retaining students, and the dropout rates noted by all studies are below the county average.
The 31,787-student school district, the third largest in Los Angeles County, covers Montebello, Bell Gardens, Commerce and parts of Downey, East Los Angeles, Monterey Park, Pico Rivera, Rosemead and South San Gabriel.
In the new study, school officials tracked 2,324 students at Montebello, Schurr and Bell Gardens high schools from enrollment as 10th-graders in 1985 to graduation in 1988, said Norton, who headed the effort.
The study was the first in which district officials tracked a specific group of students through the last three years of high school. It lists students who graduated, dropped out, transferred to other schools or entered alternative education programs, Norton said.
Nearly 23% of students in the class of 1988 dropped out, according to the survey. Bell Gardens High, which has a higher percentage of low-income Latino students, had the highest dropout rate--27.32%. Montebello High's dropout rate was 20.7%, and Schurr High's rate was 20.32%.
Previous dropout studies, which have been used by district and state education officials, calculated district dropout rates that were as much as 16 percentage points below those in the recent study, school officials said.
The district normally determines its dropout rate by comparing enrollment in early May with enrollment the following October, Norton said. Although student transfer requests between those two periods are discounted, other factors are not taken into account, causing the dropout rate to appear small, he said.
Norton said that, because the state Department of Education uses the figures in a variety of reports and comparisons, district officials decided to embark on a study that would provide more accurate results.
"We know there is a credibility gap between the two studies," Norton said. "But now we know exactly where we stand."
Norton, director of alternative programs in the district, is also principal of Vail Continuation High School, which provides intensive counseling and tutoring to students on the verge of dropping out of high school.
Although the new study did not address why students drop out, Norton said, most leave because they are disenchanted with the school system. A significant number of dropouts, he added, are pregnant teen-agers.
The largest number of dropouts occurred in the 10th grade, the study showed. Norton said he could offer no explanation why students left then.
Of the 51 school districts in the county, Montebello Unified has one of the lowest dropout rates, according to a recently published booklet by the Los Angeles County Office of Education, which lists dropout rates that have been calculated by the conventional method.
Under the conventional reporting system, Montebello's 4.4% dropout rate for the 1987-88 school year was lower than that of any surrounding district. Los Angeles Unified, the largest district in the county, had a dropout rate of 14%, according to the county statistical manual.
Dropout rates totaled 5.8% at Downey Unified, 5.7% at Alhambra Unified, 31.5% at El Rancho Unified, and 7.5% at Whittier Union High School District, according to the booklet.
"Clearly we are doing a better job than other districts," Montebello Supt. John P. Cook said. "But we can do better."
Norton has listed 11 recommendations to help lower the district dropout rate. Among them:
School officials need to "formally identify" at-risk students in the second and third grades and "establish a mechanism for tracking and counseling those students (into) high school." Norton told the board that students who tend to drop out of high school often exhibit signs at an early age.
Schools should re-examine "schoolwide policies and rules in order to identify any which may place students in the position of being forced out of school" by inflexible rules. Norton said he has encountered students who were kicked out of school because of a "rule that was enforced wrongly."
Some rules, such as loss of credit for tardiness, can "really turn kids off from school," Norton said.
The district should create programs aimed at preparing students to return to regular high school classes, one of the best ways to increase self-confidence in learning, Norton said.
All at-risk students should be allowed to complete a fifth year of high school if they have been attending that school in their fourth year. Under current rules, most students are required to enroll in adult education programs after four years in high school.
District spokeswoman Darline P. Robles, assistant superintendent for pupil and community services, said a 33-member committee will meet several times to discuss the recommendations before suggesting new programs.
"We can't just sit back and say that, 'Fine, we have a head full of numbers.' We have to do something about lowering the dropout rate."
A district study of 2,324 students over the past three years found these dropout totals, which do not include students who transferred to Vail High School.
Bell Gardens High School: 27.3%
Montebello High School: 20.7%
Schurr High School: 20.3%
Montebello Unified: 22.9%