Nobody in 17-year-old Tara Gowern's family has ever finished high school. Several years ago, the soft-spoken teen-ager might also have dropped out. But when Tara got pregnant last year and contemplated leaving Duarte High School, a unique program reached out to yank her back in.
These days Tara--now the mother of a 3-month-old girl--attends Duarte High School two days a week for four hours, learning on a computer and tutoring with teacher Jim Guerrero.
Homework and about 14 hours of weekly lessons are polished off at home, while baby Marissa sleeps. Come June, Tara will join her senior class at graduation.
"Everyone in my family is so excited because I'm the first," says Tara, taking a break from diapers and formula. "I thought I'd have to leave school, but this is a lot better. You can work at your own speed."
Tara is among the dozens of students flourishing under Duarte's dropout prevention program, launched six years ago after the district declared war on a high school dropout rate that was approaching 60%.
Since then, the district has lowered its dropout rate to 7.4%, according to statistics compiled by the Department of Education. In 1990, only 25 students of a class of about 300 had dropped out over their four years of high school, compared to 206 dropouts of the same number of students in 1986.
This placed Duarte Unified among the most improved across California for districts its size, state officials say. The 1990-91 statistics are due out Tuesday.
"Their record is impressive; I don't know of any districts that have done any better," said James Fulton, manager of educational demographics for the state Department of Education.
Duarte's program owes its existence to a 1985 state law that set aside money to target "high-risk" students who were in danger of dropping out.
With the state money, schools can hire special teachers and counselors to work one-on-one with students, make home visits to check up and generally badger, cajole and counsel them into staying in school.
Duarte High School, for instance, receives $40,000 annually in dropout prevention money, said Principal Albert Scalise. Although that covers only about a fifth of the program costs, the balance is made up by extra state money based on average daily attendance that Duarte receives for each student it brings back into the fold.
Guerrero, a ruddy-faced man with a rapid-fire speaking manner, said many of his students would have dropped out long ago if not for his program, which allows the students to work around children, jobs and domestic problems that keep them from the usual 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. school day.
"A lot of these kids, they come from big families and they have to work to help out, or their parents are sick and they are needed at home or they have babies and can't find child care. You just have to keep checking and calling and pushing till you reach them."
In his six years as Duarte's only outreach counselor and teacher, Guerrero has found himself mediating domestic disputes, listening to babies squalling while 15-year-old girls struggle with diaper pins, and touting after-school track and football programs to lure athletic-minded dropouts back to school.
One recent day, Guerrero walked up to a dilapidated tract home with peeling yellow paint and dusty weeds pushing up through cracks in the asphalt. He banged against a rusty grate that covered the front door, explaining that the 14-year-old girl who lived inside recently dropped out of school to have a baby.
There was no response. Guerrero stepped back to take in the forlorn Christmas lights still strung up in May. Near the front door stood a headless plaster statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
"On the phone, the parents sometimes try to cover up, they say the kid's been sick, or he leaves for school on time," he said. "That's why I make home visits, to see what their living conditions are like.
"You can tell a lot by whether the house is kept up, the yard is nice. You can tell if someone cares. I guess I'll have to come back after hours."
Before he left, Guerrero made one last attempt, tapping on windows shielded by grimy Venetian blinds and a fraying sheet. Cocking his head sideways, the teacher strained for any faint stirrings from within.
On the way back to school, he spotted two laughing girls, about 16, drifting across Duarte Road to disappear into the suburban neighborhood. It was 11:15 a.m.
"I know them," he said, jotting down more notes. "I'm going to talk to them tomorrow."
Before pulling into the campus, Guerrero saw another truant, a young girl with long black hair who was walking back from the local grocery store, brown paper bags cradled in her arms.
"I just talked to her yesterday about not being in school," he said. "She told me she had been in Mexico. Sometimes the parents take the children out of school. I'll have to talk with her again."