Two years ago, sophomore Irene Garcia reluctantly dropped out of El Monte High School. "I didn't want to, but I was having a lot of family problems and it was easier just to stay in the streets hanging out," said Garcia, an 18-year-old single mother who has since re-enrolled and next month will become the first person in her family to graduate from high school.
Garcia returned to school because a school official made a point of staying in touch with her. "He said he really wanted to see me graduate, and that made me really want to come back to school and get my diploma," Garcia said.
Her story is an example of a larger effort that has seen El Monte High virtually eliminate what once was a pervasive problem. In 1986, school officials say El Monte High had a dropout rate of 67%. Today, they say that number has been slashed to about 1%, the result of extensive programs to keep students in school and persuade those who have left to return.
In recognition of that success, El Monte High this month received the state Department of Education's School of the Year award, which honors progress in preventing at-risk students from dropping out.
Seven counselors at the school also picked up an H.B. McDaniel Foundation Group counseling award in March for developing creative programs to retain students without extra funds.
The 40 such programs the school offers, many of which have become models for other schools, range from special classes for pregnant teen-agers to peer support and self-esteem workshops. In addition, the high school hired a full-time employee to track students who have missed more than four days of school or who fail to return to class after summer.
"We have a heck of a network," said Fred Bauer, the school's child welfare and attendance coordinator. "You'd have a hard time trying to disappear in this district."
Statewide, the dropout rate has steadily declined in recent years--from 25% in 1986, the first year dropout data was collected, to 15.2% for the class of 1994. But few schools have matched El Monte High in practically eliminating dropouts. School officials view the achievement as all the more impressive given the challenges that many of their 1,850 students face.
El Monte High senior Karla Ramos works 25 hours a week to help support herself and her 2-year-old daughter. Ramos, 19, got behind in her studies during her sophomore year after she became pregnant, but through a combination of the school's support programs she plans to graduate in June and attend Pasadena City College.
"Without the help of the self-esteem class and support from my teachers, I would've dropped out," Ramos said. "Now I want to help others not to do what I did: Get pregnant and give up."