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Problems Beset S.D. Plan to Cut Dropout Rate

June 30, 1989|DAVID SMOLLAR | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Poor planning and coordination have plagued the first year of a much-publicized dropout prevention program that began in September as a $433,000 joint effort of San Diego city schools and private industry.

Crucial elements of the innovative program have not yet been put into place, and administrators still have no data telling them whether the first students to receive special computer-assisted instruction, counseling and employment training have returned to their regular schools as hoped for or have dropped out, Deputy Supt. Bertha Pendleton confirmed Thursday.

A new, full-time administrator has been assigned temporarily beginning this week to the program at the city schools' Bandini Center in Southeast San Diego to try to iron out problems. The previous administrator had been assigned the role only part-time, a situation Pendleton said, was "overwhelming."

Disappointment Conceded

"We're trying to work through things," Pendleton said, conceding disappointment at the rocky road the Youth Services Center has taken during its first two semesters. Pendleton oversees the district's intensive efforts to begin dealing with its high number of dropouts, especially among black and Latino students.

The Bandini project was conceived as a centerpiece to those efforts, modeled after a small but successful privately funded summer program piloted in San Diego for the past several years. The school district provided $150,000, and the Private Industry Council gave $285,000 as a commitment under the public-private San Diego Compact to prevent students from dropping out.

The plan enrolls up to 60 junior-high students who are considered to be at high risk of dropping out. They are selected from targeted minority-area schools and given one semester of basic skills tutoring using a computer-assisted curriculum, instruction in motivation and self-esteem, and a part-time job or employment training. By removing students temporarily from an environment where they are failing, administrators say they can build confidence to attempt a successful return.

Return to Home School

Following the intensive semester of individual attention, the students return to their home school, where counselors follow them closely as well as pair them with an adult mentor from the business community to help continue building self-esteem.

But Pendleton cited problems in all areas of the plan.

While the three teachers selected for the program are all highly motivated to work with problem students, Pendleton said, they were not given sufficient training in the computer-assisted instructional program. That computer system, known as PLATO, has worked successfully in bringing poorly performing students up to speed in basic subjects in the Oceanside and Sweetwater school districts, according to county education statistics.

"I'm going to be visiting the Sweetwater district in the next week or so to take another look at what they do," Pendleton said. "I don't believe there is anything wrong with our (curriculum) model, but maybe there are some things that should be changed."

Admitted Breakdown

Pendleton also admitted a breakdown in tracking progress of the students and said she doesn't know precisely why such information is not yet available. She has no data to show how many of the 47 students who spent the first semester at the center--September through January--are now studying successfully in a regular program.

"We don't know where they are," Pendleton said, adding that there apparently has been poor communication between the center's staff and counselors at the regular schools. Pendleton said that every student who leaves the program is supposed to be placed by a district counselor, who will then maintain contact. "It's obvious we need a better articulation process," she said.

"I don't think anybody understood how hard it would be to work through the bureaucracy of the city schools as well as that of the Private Industry Council," said Jeanne Jehl, special assistant to Pendleton who took over the program's administration this week. "But I'm going to find out where these kids are because you can't tell whether the program is successful or not without the information."

Key Element Missing

The mentor portion of the program has yet to begin, "and without it, we are missing a key element in giving ongoing support and nurturing after the intensive semester program," Pendleton said.

Jehl hopes to have some type of mentor activity under way by this fall and said that private industry has now raised $15,000 for recruitment and training.

"To be honest, the failure so far stems from the compact having difficulty of getting the attention of the business community about this program," said Jehl, who for several years was in charge of a more limited school-industry partnership that pairs a business with an individual school.

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