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School Throws a Lifeline to 60 Sinking Freshmen

Education: Unique effort at El Camino Real identifies students, then uses staff mentors to get them back on track.


On her first day at El Camino Real High School last September, Janet Diaz was bumped and jostled, ridiculed and intimidated. "It was like I had FRESHMAN stamped across my forehead," said the 15-year-old, her face souring at the memory.

It was downhill from there. Her courses were too demanding. She fell in with the wrong crowd. She started to ditch. Just before Christmas, she was arrested for truancy outside a doughnut shop near the Woodland Hills campus.

At semester's end, Janet had failed five of six classes, flying headlong into a familiar, sad trajectory. And she was far from alone.

Despite its reputation as a scholastic powerhouse, El Camino--the state's reigning Academic Decathlon champ--found that almost half of its freshman class of 900 had failed one or more classes; 120 had flunked three or more.

This evidence of severe academic malnutrition galvanized the staff of the proud San Fernando Valley school almost more than its much-ballyhooed triumphs.

Disturbed by the numbers, 60 teachers, administrators and other employees--fully half of the school's staff--stepped forward, each agreeing to take on a failing student for no extra pay. Another 80 11th- and 12th-graders also signed up to help.

Their effort was dubbed the Ninth Grade Student Achievement Mentor Program, a fancy name for what was essentially a rescue mission.

Studies show that students often leave middle school unprepared--emotionally, as well as academically--for high school, a strange new world ruled by big, know-it-all seniors, where social pressures are amplified by surging hormones, and the homework load is taxing. Without personal attention, experts say, many youngsters become lost and slip into a pattern of failure that weakens their commitment to school.

Educators know what happens to these students who founder at the beginning of high school: They are today's discipline problems and, too often, tomorrow's washouts. Adrift in the oversized and impersonal institution of high school, 60 of El Camino's failing freshmen were thrown a lifesaver.

Some of them refused the help, shunning even their mentors' attempts to schedule a meeting with them. But most grabbed on--and the results have been promising.

By the spring quarter, the passing rate had risen for two-thirds of the 60 freshmen, and disciplinary referrals were reduced 50% for the whole group. Although grades for the last quarter have not yet been compiled, school officials are confident that the majority of the group will have passed enough courses to become 10th-graders next year.

Zeroing in on freshman failures is critical, in part because the ninth and 10th grades are the years of greatest peril for dropping out, records kept by the Los Angeles Unified School District show. At El Camino, students drop out at a rate of about 5% a year, and about 50% of the disciplinary referrals to the dean's office each day have involved freshmen with multiple Fs.

But it is not a common practice at most high schools to systematically target failing freshmen for special attention.

"Quite frankly," said Ron Temple, a consultant on high school instructional resources for the state Department of Education, "schools get overwhelmed. They have to look at the data that tells them they've got an inordinate amount of students not doing well. That should be routine, but it's not as common as we would like."

El Camino discovered the scope of its freshman problem when it joined the LEARN school reform network last year. "We were asked to examine all the things that we do well and try not to ruin them," said Principal Ron Bauer, "and then look at the things that pop up that we can improve."

One trouble spot appeared when Bauer ran off a computer list of ninth-graders who had Fs after the first five weeks of school. He showed the list to Carole Donohue, an English teacher who also runs the school's Impact program, which offers small support groups in which students can talk about their problems.

"We were astounded to find so many kids were failing," Donohue said. "People think of this school as the most academic school. But many students don't fit that mold."

Donohue suggested putting the students into Impact groups. But when about half of the faculty expressed interest in helping, Donohue proposed expanding the effort. The mentor program was born.

By the end of the first semester, Donohue had 60 students with three or more Fs who were willing to participate. Each was assigned a staff mentor and one or two 11th- or 12th-grade student mentors. The freshmen were to meet with their mentors at least once a week and join an Impact group. Pizza parties and field trips were planned as added inducements.

Although mentoring is an old concept, El Camino's staff went at it with vigor. Some said they took on the extra responsibility because of, not in spite of, their heavy loads. "With 40 kids in a class, you can never get around to every one," said English teacher Richard Urias. "But working with one student, that's appealing."

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