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L.A. district to end high-profile dropout-prevention program

March 24, 2009|Howard Blume

A high-profile and lauded dropout-prevention program is falling victim to budget cuts -- although top Los Angeles school officials insist that they'll provide a more effective program in its place.

The precarious Diploma Project is emblematic of the financial crisis slowly working its way across the nation's second-largest school system as ripples of a statewide budget shortfall touch counselors, teachers and other school employees whose work directly affects children enrolled in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Nearly 9,000 employees -- about 10% of the full-time workforce -- received notice of a possible layoff this month as the district seeks to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from its nearly $6-billion general fund. But there's more going on than financial pain.

Reshaping system

After taking the helm in January, Supt. Ramon C. Cortines, one of the country's most experienced educators, has attempted to reshape the school system. Cortines is seizing the moment to trim or gut some of the central bureaucracy, while also moving dollars and responsibility to schools. The superintendent wants schools to decide for themselves whether to pay for additional counselors, arts programs and librarians, among other things.

The new setup must save money, but it also should be more effective, he said.

"Everything I'm attempting to do is about improving the system," Cortines said.

"Ray is confronting the budget challenge by furthering an agenda he believes in," said David Rattray, a Cortines supporter and top official with the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. The "current environment makes change more achievable and more difficult to retreat from."

Some insiders, however, suggest that Cortines is slashing more than necessary given the impending arrival of federal stimulus funds. And for all its flaws, the central bureaucracy also is "the thin line of public accountability," said former school board member David Tokofsky, a consultant with the administrators union. Backers of the dropout program plan to appeal today to the school board, which ultimately would have to approve Cortines' budget plan.

The 3-year-old, $10-mil- lion Diploma Project, which assigns counselors to 49 high schools and 31 middle schools, was launched in the wake of bad publicity over alarming dropout rates and the district's determination to confront them. Schools with the highest dropout rates, according to state figures, include Jefferson High in South Los Angeles, listed at 52.1%, and Belmont High, west of downtown, at 51%.

Diploma Project counselors work with students derailed by such issues as failed classes, behavior problems, poor attendance and failing the state exit exam, which is required for graduation. The advisors also help students who have left school to return or transfer elsewhere, as with 16-year-old Juan Troncoso.

Juan had been kicked out of three middle schools for tagging and failing classes, among other problems. After being involved in a student fight during his first semester at Wilson High in El Sereno, Juan said an administrator suggested that he might be safer at another school. "I never ended up going," Juan said.

Last week, Juan resumed his studies at a charter school that will allow him to work independently. He credits Nancy Chavez, Wilson's Diploma Project advisor, for helping him find school options.

While praising such success stories, Cortines characterized the district's overall counseling services as disjointed and wasteful, with various counselors reporting to different central-office administrators.

At Wilson High, for example, there are numerous counselors, including those for attendance, college and academics. Chavez said the group works well together, dividing up tasks and collaborating to help students.

Lack of resources

Several counselors argued that their real stumbling block is not poor organization, but lack of resources. This year, high school academic counselors had to handle as many as 500 students each; next year the number could increase to 650.

The success of the Diploma Project, and other related initiatives, is difficult to nail down because of inconclusive dropout statistics. The district's official graduation rate has increased slightly to 67.1%.

School principals will face hard choices in exchange for autonomy. All secondary schools, for example, will have one librarian, but a high school that wants more -- or an elementary school that wants anything -- would have to purchase library services at the expense of something else. Meanwhile, central library services will be reduced. Arts programs, for example, and other services also would compete for limited dollars -- although with the arts, the superintendent wants to redistribute resources more fairly to benefit underserved elementary schools, so there is some gain along with the pain.

"I'm dealing with a budget deficit over three years and five years. Not everybody will be saved, and," Cortines said, "everybody shouldn't be saved."

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howard.blume@latimes.com

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