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L.A. Confronts Dropout Crisis Among Latinos

August 31, 1989|ELAINE WOO | Times Education Writer

As the Los Angeles Unified School District gears up for a new school year in September, it faces many old problems, with low achievement and a high dropout rate, particularly among Latinos, heading the list of challenges.

Although there are a few bright spots, educators and critics say the school district for the most part has had a poor record of educating Latinos.

Districtwide, 39% of all 10th through 12th graders drop out over the three years of high school. Although no ethnic breakdown on this figure is available, one-year dropout statistics show an enormous exodus by Latino students.

In the 1987-88 school year, 54% of the 19,381 high school students who dropped out were Latino. The one-year Latino dropout rate, calculated by dividing the number of Latino dropouts by the total number of Latino high school students, ranges from 7.5% at Huntington Park High School to 33.6% at Crenshaw High. Latino dropout rates generally are higher in South-Central Los Angeles than in the East and Southeast sections of the district.

"It is not an exaggeration to state that we have a crisis in this school district in terms of educating Latino students," said Los Angeles Board of Education member Leticia Quezada. "It has to do with institutionalized racism. It is the result of hundreds of years of disservice."

The education lost by the thousands of Latino youngsters who drop out should concern all of society, said Pete Martinez, who coordinates dropout prevention programs for the district.

"The public is going to pay double for services to recapture or sustain these individuals in our society," he said. "They (dropouts) could end up not being productive members of our society, not in the mainstream and not making policy. They will be the have-nots."

Black and Latino students fare the poorest in most measures of academic performance in the Los Angeles school district, the nation's second largest. Low achievement affects Latinos in the largest numbers, however.

Nearly 60% of the district's 595,000 pupils are Latino, according to a fall 1988 enrollment report. Blacks make up 16.7%, Anglos 15.8%, Asians 8.3% and American Indians 0.2%.

Failure to finish high school is the most serious problem among Latino youngsters, educators and other district observers say.

The one-year dropout rate for Latinos in the district is about 16%. That means that in the course of one year, one in six Latino students will drop out of high school.

Latino students in the Los Angeles district are slightly more likely to become dropouts than in the state as a whole. According to figures compiled by the California Department of Education, 1 in 8, or 12% of the Latino high school students statewide dropped out in the 1987-88 school year.

State education officials are in the process of calculating a three-year dropout rate, broken down by ethnic groups. The three-year rate will give a more complete picture of the problem, state officials say, by showing what proportion of the class that entered the 10th grade in 1985-86 had dropped out by the 12th grade in 1987-88.

Some critics of the Los Angeles district say that the dropout problem is more severe among Latinos than the figures show because hundreds of students drop out as early as the seventh grade.

Of those who stay in high school, statistics show that a disproportionately low number are enrolled in advanced mathematics and science courses needed for college.

Board members say that long-term solutions to low achievement are needed.

"One very simple thing we can do is have high expectations," said school board member Roberta Weintraub. More teachers, she said, should emulate Garfield High School's Jaime Escalante, whose success in teaching calculus to inner-city Latino students was showcased in last year's critically praised film "Stand and Deliver." Teachers like Escalante "have proven that when you have high expectations for kids, they deliver," she said.

Other approaches that board members said should be taken are expanding bilingual education, strengthening instruction and counseling in the early and middle grades and increasing parent participation in schools.

Bilingual education, an approach to teaching non-English-speaking students that was introduced in the 1970s and remains controversial today, is one of the key changes needed to improve the dismal picture of Latino student achievement, several board members said. But a shortage of bilingual instructors has hampered efforts to expand bilingual programs.

The district has 145,650 Latino students who are not fluent in English but only about 1,400 fully credentialed Spanish bilingual instructors--a ratio of about 1 to 100. District officials hope that newly approved salary bonuses of $1,000 to $5,000 a year for bilingual teachers will enhance recruiting efforts.

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