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Reformers cite middle school needs

After focusing for years on younger and older students, educators in L.A. and elsewhere are looking for new ways to curb the dropout rate.

December 26, 2006|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

Iris Sanchez is stumbling toward high school.

With two weeks left before winter break started, the quiet eighth-grader was flunking math, science and history. She was studying little at home and missing classes.

She has, in short, the makings of a dropout.

But on a recent Tuesday morning, Iris was pulled out of her third-period class at Sepulveda Middle School and called to the counseling office. She slipped meekly into a closet-sized room and found herself face to face with Lauren Weiss.

Part tough-love sergeant and part mother figure, Weiss led Iris through a crash course on the pitfalls awaiting her next year.

"You've got to own your education, Iris. You've got to own it. In high school, when you see your grades going down, it is really important that ... bells go off in your head," she said. "You go and you ask for help. Good students get help. All right?"

Iris is hardly alone. Every year, thousands of low-performing, unprepared students in the Los Angeles Unified School District move from middle to high school. There, with more rigorous high-stakes academics and intense social pressures, they can find it easy to fall behind, grow frustrated and give up.

It is a story line that school district officials say must be rewritten. After having focused for years on elementary and high school reforms, L.A. Unified leaders say they are turning their attention to middle schools in hopes of better preparing students for high school and thus stemming the district's alarming dropout rate.

"Middle schools have been overlooked," said Robert Collins, the district's chief instructional officer for secondary education. "We can't win the high school issues unless we do a better job in middle schools."

The problem is not limited to Los Angeles. Across the country, educators have struggled with how to teach adolescents in the awkward middle years. Briefly the subject of national debate in the late 1980s, middle school reform efforts have since slipped largely into the shadows.

In coming months, Los Angeles Unified officials are expected to ask the Board of Education for the go-ahead on aggressive reforms for middle schools. Even if approved, however, such reforms, which could include a longer school day, would take years to fully implement.

Until then, Weiss and the cadre of other counselors hired this year to work in some of the district's neediest middle schools are doing triage to identify and intervene with at-risk students.

"The idea of dropping out begins as a quiet secret in the minds of middle-schoolers," Weiss said. "If there isn't someone there who reaches them to bust that idea, it will grow and grow."

For a series of articles earlier this year, The Times spent eight months examining the dropout problem at a typical district high school. In interviews, hundreds of dropouts and struggling students echoed Weiss, saying middle school had done little to ready them for high school.

A failing grade in middle school, for example, rarely meets with any serious repercussions, but in high school, poor-performing students get caught in a downward spiral. They must pass classes to earn credits needed to graduate. With every class they fail and repeat, struggling students slip further behind.

The social and emotional transition from middle to high school can be rough. Often for the first time, high school students encounter a host of outside pressures -- gangs, work and sex -- that can push them to drop out.

Los Angeles school district officials announced a set of initiatives in February aimed at tackling the dropout crisis. As part of the effort, Weiss and other "diploma project advisors" were placed in low-performing middle schools. Another group was sent into troubled high schools.

Including Sepulveda in the northeast San Fernando Valley community of North Hills, 33 of the district's 74 traditional middle schools have the new counselors. They are expected to work with the students at greatest risk -- in general, those who are failing at least three classes or who have serious discipline and attendance problems.

Sessions can last 10 minutes or two hours and can be businesslike discussions of study habits and grades or deeply emotional forays into a troubled student's family life.

Counselors connect students to whatever tutoring, psychological or social services they need. They press these students to take extra classes on weekends or vacations and attempt to open their eyes to the realities awaiting them in high school. They call parents and try -- often futilely -- to get them to become more involved in their children's education.

At Gage Middle School in Huntington Park, the job is daunting. More than 3,300 students from the poor, Latino immigrant community overfill the school. The seven traditional counselors on staff scramble to manage caseloads of about 500 students each, more than 40% of whom struggle to speak English.

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