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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

Perhaps Birmingham's greatest accomplishment is that, by some measures, it has narrowed the "achievement gap" between rich and poor, white and nonwhite, that bedevils most American schools. In the last six years, standardized test scores for Latino and African American students at the school have improved substantially. The scores of white students have also risen, but more modestly.

According to Times research, poor students in the Class of 2005 were just as likely as more affluent students to graduate from Birmingham, and African American and Latino students were slightly more likely than whites to get diplomas.

That is significant, especially given how much Birmingham has changed over the last half century.

Opened in 1953 on the site of a former military hospital, the school was designed to accommodate the epic migration of young families, most of them white, to the San Fernando Valley in the years after World War II.

Graduates have included junk bond pioneer and philanthropist Michael Milken, actress Sally Field, former Disney President Michael Ovitz and slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. But over the last couple of decades, Birmingham's demographics have shifted dramatically.

The most common last name at Birmingham now is Garcia, closely followed by Hernandez and Martinez. Two-thirds of the student body is Latino; fewer than one in six students is non-Hispanic white. Many students are immigrants or the children of immigrants; roughly one-third of the students are learning English as a second language.

Until recently, the school was also forced to absorb students bused in from elsewhere in the city. The Class of 2005 included 102 students who were squeezed out of overcrowded Belmont High School near downtown.

The school's adjustment to these changes hasn't been easy. But academic standards have not suffered; if anything, a Birmingham diploma today is more difficult to obtain than it was a generation ago.

Even some of those who left the school are wistful about what they gave up.

"I wish I would have finished high school in Birmingham," said Leonardo Portillo, who left after ninth grade and now works in construction, his dream of a diploma receding. He attended five other schools before dropping out and says of Birmingham: "It was the only school I was comfortable in."

Still, with nearly 4,000 students, Birmingham is a big, crowded, at times violent place. "It's a huge school with people who look so grown up," said Debora Elias, who felt so uncomfortable that she left for another school in her sophomore year.

Said Doris Lasiter, principal until last summer: "I think part of it is being overwhelmed and not being able to connect and not feeling ? that maybe there's a teacher who really cares about what they're doing."

Ethnic tensions turned off some students. Problems arose between the majority Latino population and a much smaller group of Armenian students and between Latinos and African Americans. Privately, teachers and administrators readily admit that the staff includes instructors who are either burned out or never caught fire.

All of which means that some students — in fact, many students — get lost.

That's what happened to Mayra Mendez. At least, that's part of her story.

Raised by a single mother from Mexico who didn't finish middle school, Mayra had lived in at least half a dozen cities by the time she started kindergarten, and she bounced from school to school before settling in at Noble Elementary in North Hills. She liked school and was eventually classified as gifted.

But like so many students, she began to founder in middle school. At Mulholland, she said, her social life began to eclipse academics. "I had some friends who I knew were a bad influence," she said. Mayra began having disciplinary problems.

Ninth grade felt like a fresh start. In her classes at Birmingham, "I thought, 'Oh, I know this. I could do this.' "

But soon she began getting into fights. She cut class. She felt rebellious. "I wanted to push, to see how far I could go," she said. "And no one ever disciplined me. I blame myself at times. But at other times, I think, 'Well, it is their job. They are getting paid. It's not just my fault.' "

At the end of her first semester, she had failed every class. She didn't bother to go back.

"I didn't have anyone tell me to stay in school, and people were just encouraging me to get out as soon as possible," she said. Four years later, she couldn't recall if she'd ever spoken to a counselor. Only one adult had seemed to care, she said — an English teacher, Joe Rosenthal.

Rosenthal, who sees around 200 students a day, instantly remembered Mayra.

"This girl, Mayra Mendez, was very intelligent," he said. "She was very aggressive. I told her she should be a lawyer."

There was just one problem: She rarely did her work.

"When she did," he said, "it was always really good."

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