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THE VANISHING CLASS

Back to Basics: Why Does High School Fail So Many?

Shockingly high dropout rates portend a bleak future for youths who fall by the wayside and for society. For many, the traditional U.S. education system is a dead end.

January 29, 2006|By Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

When students are caught, she said, they receive $250 tickets that require them to appear in court with a parent. About 200 such tickets were given out last school year.

"And they still roam," she said in exasperation.

Erick Vindel said he gave up on Birmingham after receiving three or four of the tickets in his junior year. "It got too complicated," he said.

The school has instituted a new system of taking attendance each period, rather than just once a day, and is developing a new disciplinary system to punish truants. Since the attendance system went into effect Nov. 6, students have skipped more than 2,000 classes.

Ultimately, behind in credits, beleaguered by problems that would stagger many adults, some students reached a point at which staying in school — at least in a traditional school — made no sense. "What was I doing there if I wasn't going to graduate on time?" wondered Ruben Vazquez, 18, who left Birmingham in what should have been his senior year.

The school typically has made little effort to keep such students. It has few resources to spend on them and is often happy to be rid of the ones considered troublemakers.

"Why do we have to jump through hoops for kids with 40 absences?" Dean Matt Mowry asked. "We should be able to say, 'You have to go.' "

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Statistics Versus Reality

The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, in conjunction with UCLA, produced a controversial report last spring saying that official dropout statistics in California's largest school districts were shockingly out of sync with reality. The researchers found that only 48% of the L.A. Unified students who started ninth grade in 1999 graduated four years later. The district claims a graduation rate of 66%.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who wants to take over the school district, jumped on the study to assert that half of the students in L.A. Unified were dropping out.

School district officials said that was wrong, since the UCLA numbers included as dropouts students who had left to continue their education elsewhere. They put the dropout rate for 2003-04 at 33%.

One of the problems with trying to understand the dropout problem is that experts can't even agree on the definition of a dropout: Should it include, for instance, a student who quits school but continues in home study that is unlikely to lead to graduation?

The debate can be seen in microcosm at Birmingham High. UCLA calculated the graduation rate at Birmingham at 50%. L.A. Unified, using federal formulas, puts it at nearly 80%, with just 3.5% classified as dropouts.

School officials make no pretense of defending that dropout figure. Schools Supt. Roy Romer was flabbergasted when he heard it. "Whoa! Wait a minute!" he said. "Can you tell me that number again?"

But they also believe the dropout rate is not as high as UCLA's figures imply.

The Times determined that at least 53% of the students who began at Birmingham in ninth grade graduated four years later, many from other schools.

At least 9% more were continuing their education, most of them hoping to graduate eventually. At least 12% were not in school of any kind. The rest couldn't be found, although extensive inquiries at area schools suggested most were not active students.

It would be easy to see Birmingham as just another bad public school. But for many students, it's not.

It has a dedicated core of teachers and offers a variety of honors and Advanced Placement classes. Its journalism magnet program draws many high-achieving students.

Birmingham sent more than 60 members of the Class of 2005 to the University of California, and three-quarters of its graduates planned to pursue higher education.

Motivated students find their way. But sometimes it takes more. Danny Rangel said he was on the road to dropping out when he was admitted to Birmingham's journalism magnet. Rangel, from Pacoima, wound up with a scholarship to Dartmouth College.

What set him apart from his childhood friends, many of whom dropped out? Like most successful students, Rangel credited both a demanding parent and inspiring teachers — especially one, Kevin Kelly, who told him to aim high when he applied to college.

Rangel said his mother, a Salvadoran immigrant, never made it past second grade but made school a top priority for her children. "She's forceful when it comes to that subject," he said.

Not all students get that kind of attention. "I think the majority" of parents are "just too busy keeping food on the table," said Coates, the Birmingham principal. And with 35 or 40 students in many classes, teachers confront a formidable problem: If half their students are at risk of failing, how many can they possibly save?

Coates hopes that one answer will be the transition to "small learning communities" — theme-based schools within schools. She also has plans to get parents more involved.

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