More than 8,000 junior high school students in the Los Angeles Unified School District dropped out last year, offering troubling evidence that junior highs--as well as high schools--have a serious dropout problem.
Many local educators say the new findings suggest that junior high--an institution often described as being caught in the middle, lacking direction and adequate resources--may be in sore need of an overhaul.
A recent report from the district's dropout prevention office showed that 7.4% of the school system's 117,000 sixth-to-ninth graders--or 8,680 students--dropped out of junior high during the 1987-88 school year, the latest for which statistics are available.
The dropout rate ranged from 1.76% at Dodson Junior High in San Pedro to 28.46% at Bethune in South-Central Los Angeles.
Little is known about the scope and causes of the dropout problem in junior high in part because most states, including California, ask school systems to report dropouts only from the 10th grade on. The Los Angeles district began counting junior high dropouts on its own three years ago, but made the latest figures available as part of school board hearings on the dropout problem.
"We're flying blind right now," said state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig. "We know (dropping out in junior high) is a potential problem. But I don't think people really know that much about it. We haven't been keeping score."
The district's overall junior high dropout rate actually declined from 14.4% in 1985-86 and 10.19% in 1986-87. School officials say the decline may signal better reporting by schools, although others say some schools may be undercounting dropouts.
Dropout studies generally focus on the senior high years, when the hemorrhaging is most severe. Nationally, about 25% of students fail to finish high school, and in large cities, such as Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, the rate ranges between 40% and 50%.
Los Angeles' 7.4% rate in junior high reflects the number of sixth-through-ninth graders who dropped out over the course of one year. Most of the district's junior highs run from seventh to ninth grade, so that could translate into at least a 20% dropout rate overall for the graduating class of 1988.
Some junior high principals suspect that the figures are too low. But others complain that the current methods of conducting dropout surveys are unreliable and exaggerate the problem. Some of the students recorded as dropouts may be enrolled in another district, for instance, but if they have not requested a transfer of their school records, the district assumes they are not in school.
Although he disputed the accuracy of the district's figures, Gompers Junior High Principal Ron Sakoda said, "We know what occurs and we're trying to prevent it. For (students) to drop out at junior high school age is just deadly."
Some of the reasons why students drop out in junior high are the same as in senior high, experts say. Students who are older than their classmates because they have had to repeat grades, who have low self-esteem and are failing academically, or who lack strong parental guidance are prime candidates. Drug abuse, gang involvement and pregnancy also cause many students to abandon school.
But educators believe factors unique to the junior high experience also cause dropouts. District statistics show that most junior high dropouts leave in the seventh grade, when junior high begins. Larry Glenn, an El Sereno Junior High School science teacher, said, "They're coming from elementary school to a big zoo," and some students may feel lost.
Often, several factors combine to produce a dropout. On a recent morning, for example, El Sereno Junior High School dropout counselor Ana Maria Romero gently questioned a teary-eyed eighth-grade boy who had already missed half of the first 10 weeks of classes. The boy told her that he feels dumb and can't keep up with class work. To make matters worse, his parents apparently do little to force him to attend school. In fact, they write excuse notes for him so that he won't be marked truant.
Romero promised to provide him with extra tutoring after school and planned to contact his parents. Without special attention, he might well become a dropout, she said.
Los Angeles Board of Education President Jackie Goldberg said that cultural beliefs may contribute to the district's junior high dropout problem.
Sixty percent of the district's 610,000 pupils are Latino, many of them immigrants. "In some countries," said Goldberg, "the expectation is that being educated means (finishing) elementary school."
In Goldberg's view, this could explain why more than a third of the junior high dropouts in the 1987-88 school year fell into the "no-show" category--students who were expected to enroll in junior high but never appeared at the school.