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Drop out? Not an option

Under a new principal, Birmingham High has embraced ambitious measures to keep students in school.

December 09, 2006|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

Delmy Lagos stared in surprise as the student's records glowed to life, white letters on a blue computer screen.

She was sitting behind her desk at Birmingham High School, in a spare, fluorescent-lit office the size of an elevator, and she was puzzled by what she saw.

Lagos is a counselor whose job is to find and help students who are at risk of dropping out. Tony Tacen, the student whose records were before her, didn't fit the profile. He had passed all his classes, often with A's or Bs. He was on track to graduate. Yet Tony had left Birmingham High at the end of 11th grade and had not returned in September.

Who was this kid, and what had happened to him?

Those questions might have lingered had Tony been a year or two older, a member of the Class of 2005 or '06. Someone from Birmingham probably would have taken the first step, calling Tony's home and leaving messages. Someone even might have driven to his apartment and left a note if no one answered the door.

It was what Lagos did next that helps explain why Birmingham High just might have a chance to make inroads on a dropout problem typical of many urban schools.

Lagos fought for Tony. She did it the way good teachers and counselors fight for students every day. But too often, nobody fights for kids like Tony -- out of sight, out of mind and out of school.

In a series of four articles last January and February, The Times looked at the dropout problem at Birmingham, a school in the San Fernando Valley chosen not because it stood out as a failure, but because it was typical.

Many students thrived at Birmingham, which sent its share of students to good colleges -- Cal State and UC campuses, even the Ivy League. But many others struggled, or gave up and quit.

According to the district, Birmingham had a dropout rate of 3.5%. But of 1,100 students who were freshmen in the fall of 2001, fewer than half walked across the football field in June 2005 to receive their diplomas. No one could say with certainty where most of the rest had gone.

The Times found that many, eager for a diploma but unable to manage the demands of a large, comprehensive high school, had transferred to other schools or to independent study programs.

Often, that was just a slow-motion way of dropping out.

Within days of The Times' series, the Los Angeles Unified School District announced new measures to help keep students in school. Under a new principal, Marsha Coates, Birmingham embraced those initiatives and added others.

The changes allowed Coates to hire new people. Lagos was hired under a districtwide program that added one counselor to nearly every high school and put them in charge of the students considered most at risk.

Coates also hired an additional attendance clerk and a new pupil services counselor to track down truants and dropouts.

Coates reorganized the school to give its 3,000 students more of a connection to what can be a vast, anonymous institution.

She established a ninth-grade "academy" that would give extra attention to freshmen. She created "small learning communities" throughout the rest of the school, implementing a districtwide initiative designed to make huge high schools less impersonal and sort students according to their interests.

Birmingham instituted a "bridge program" that encourages incoming ninth-graders with weak math and English skills to take a remedial summer school program. It provided tutoring for those who were falling behind in algebra, a subject that trips up many students.

It is too early to say whether the new measures will succeed. Missindy Wilkins, the coordinator of the new ninth-grade academy, said it could be several years before there's any significant payoff, and she worries that the district won't have the patience to wait.

The goal of much of what is being done is to "build community," Wilkins said. "That really takes time to unfold."

There is, in fact, a powerful undertow pulling students out of school. Many are affected by overwhelming social and cultural problems: gang life, dysfunctional families, pressure to work, poor English skills, a PlayStation culture that looks down on academic achievement.

No one expects Birmingham to hang on to every student -- not by itself. The question, still unanswered, is whether the school can have any significant effect at all on the number of dropouts. At this point, Birmingham appears to have steered some students from the dropout path -- at least for now.

The school is taking two broad approaches. One is to pull dropouts like Tony back into school or find suitable alternatives for them. The other is to try to keep struggling students from leaving school.

Among the more obvious lessons from these early efforts is that wayward students are reclaimed one at a time, with lots of individual attention; that it takes extraordinary passion and dedication on the part of teachers and counselors; and that high schools can't, as a rule, change the environment in which students live -- but neither can they ignore it.

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