The dropout rate in the Los Angeles Unified School District declined almost 17% -- welcome news in a school system beleaguered by budget cuts and ongoing battles over future reforms.
The dropout rate for the 2007-08 school year came in at 26.4%, down from 31.7% for the previous year and among the largest improvements in the state. L.A. Unified still trails all other large urban school systems in California except Oakland Unified.
"We're starting to see the results of three years of work," said Debra Duardo, a onetime dropout who began the district's dropout-prevention unit. For one thing, there were 16,000 duplicate student records that, in effect, inflated the dropout rate. More important, school teams better coordinated diffuse services, she said, "to identify students at risk and decide who's working with a student and who's contacting the parents."
District officials also credited the conversion of large high schools into clusters of smaller academies, with the goal of quickly intervening to help students at risk of failure.
At South Gate High School, which has about 3,300 students, the dropout rate fell 1.5 percentage points to 20% while graduation rates jumped nearly 15 points to almost 83%.
Six-year Principal Patrick Moretta, who recently retired, attributed gains to factors including increased teacher support, a mandatory study hall for ninth- and 10th-graders, and diversion of more funding to the classroom. Athletics sometimes had to take a back seat, he said, with practices no longer held during school hours so coaches and students could devote more time to schoolwork.
Overall, the district's graduation rate rose 7.9% to 72.4%.
Both the graduation and dropout rates are approximations. The dropout rate is a four-year estimate based on two years of data that, for the first time, tracks individual students. But it can't tabulate dropouts who are listed as having left a California public school for another school. The graduation rate uses four years of data, but does not yet track individuals. L.A. Unified provided the data in advance of its official state release.
Among the results: Hollywood High cut its dropout rate nearly in half from 36.3% to 18.8%. Birmingham High in the San Fernando Valley increased its graduation rate from 77% to 91.1%. On the other hand, Jefferson High had an improved but still poor graduation rate of 48.6%. Ditto for the Santee Educational Complex, with a dropout rate of 41.2%.
These results burnish the record of former Supt. David L. Brewer, who was forced out in December although test scores rose. Brewer, reached in Orlando, Fla., credited Duardo as well as district principals and teachers who accepted responsibility for taking on the dropout problem.
"I kept telling people we were turning the corner," he said.
Whether these gains will be sustained could depend on how well the school system adjusts to reduced resources in the wake of state budget woes. The number of counselors taking part in the district's Diploma Project, for example, has been cut in half.
"I hope that program survived," Brewer said, "because it really focused on kids."