NORWALK — During the last six years, Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District officials have started one program after another aimed at staunching the flow of students who enter high schools then drop out before graduating.
But each year the dropout rate has crept higher, peaking with the class of 1989, when a little more than a third of the class dropped out during the three years before graduation.
"We're at a place in this district where we've got to do something," board President William White said. "We have some programs, but they just haven't been working out."
Convinced that traditional stay-in-school programs, such as dropout counseling and independent study programs, are just not enough, the district board last week approved spending $1.3 million on a program that officials hope will lure students back to the classroom.
The plan is modeled after a highly successful program in the Sweetwater school district in southwestern San Diego County, which slashed the dropout rate from about 40% to 8% in five years, said Elias Galvan, the director of secondary education for the Norwalk-La Mirada district.
Galvan, who visited the Sweetwater district four times during the summer to interview staff members, students and parents, said the plan calls for students to sign a contract agreeing they will attend one hour of computer courses and one hour of teacher-instructed courses a day.
A counselor will also be hired to work with the students.
Galvan said after students spend two hours at school, they are free to go home. Sometime during the day, however, they must spend three to four more hours on home study. The students are expected to bring the work they completed at home to school the next day to discuss with the teacher, he said.
Students can attend their two hourlong courses any time from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., but they must clock in when they arrive, Galvan said.
"The program brings in high technology, counseling, teaching, the use of time--all the things we have ever talked about," Galvan said.
But, Galvan and some board members said, what makes the program most attractive to the students interviewed in San Diego is its flexibility, despite the use of a contract and time cards.
"Let's face it," Galvan said, "the youngsters are not going to enroll in a program if they don't like it. But in this program they say, 'I only have to be in school only two hours a day. I am trusted to do my own work. I am responsible for my own progress.'
"I talked to many kids, and I didn't find one that gave me negative feelings about the plan."
Board member Bruce Butler, who visited Sweetwater last month, said: "Rather then forcing the student to fit into our schedule, we fit into their schedule."
Butler said he and district officials are so convinced that the program will work for them that they are willing to invest $200,000 on computer equipment and spend thousands more on staff, classroom preparation and other materials.
"We're going to lose some money at first," Butler said, but district officials are counting on the program to pay for itself eventually, because the state will reimburse the district about $3,000 per student who attends school daily.
The program must enroll about 350 students to generate enough money to keep it running, he said.
Butler said district officials estimate that it could take up to two years to reach that figure.
Galvan said the district plans to begin recruiting dropout students immediately and will cull the lists of dropouts kept by the district, as well as spread the word on campus, churches and community centers.
The two centers at La Mirada High School and Norwalk High School will probably be ready for the students by October, he said.