Los Angeles Unified Supt. John Deasy opened the new school year Tuesday with a speech to administrators in which he urged them to eliminate the dropout rate, and then assigned each one a struggling student to look after.
Much of Deasy's talk at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles celebrated progress in the nation's second-largest school system, including rising graduation rates. The most recent rate was 82%, Deasy said, including students who stayed enrolled longer than four years.
He quickly turned to another figure: 6,950, the number of dropouts from that same class. Deasy said that number could be brought down to zero and implored his audience to "reach out to one youth at a time, every single one of us."
To that end, 1,500 sealed envelopes, each containing a student's name, were placed on seats in the recently rebuilt Garfield High auditorium. The superintendent asked administrators to reach out to the students — all were freshmen last year who are at risk of dropping out. They had problems with attendance, discipline, failed classes or low test scores — or a variety of these, district spokeswoman Ellen Morgan said. Some are in foster care, some are learning English and some are disabled.
The example of what's at stake was provided by another speaker, recent graduate Vanessa Perez, 18, who said her parents, who were middle-school dropouts, also dropped out of her life due to drug addiction.
She said her teachers helped get her through: "They told me: 'Don't give up. You have to keep going to school. We believe in you.' "
A week before the Aug. 12 start of school, Deasy also welcomed 96 new principals. Their ranks have turned over more than 40% since he became superintendent in April 2011.
"Everybody else in the room has your back," he told them. "We know how much fun this is going to be."
In addition, he expressed relief at budget increases that have begun to reverse several years of deep cuts brought on by the economic recession and declining enrollment. The district has hired hundreds of new teachers, assistant principals, librarians, counselors and others.
The duties of new Assistant Principal Florentino Jauregui will include evaluating teachers under a potentially time-consuming fledgling system. Jauregui said he would get more details on how to carry out classroom observations and other duties later in the week.
Deasy's remarks included some advice about what administrators — new and old — should focus on. "Great teaching first," he told the administrators rather than "good remediation after."
The superintendent also praised employee unions that have agreed to contracts with the district; the teachers have yet to settle.
Besides Perez, the district featured another recent graduate to demonstrate what the school system could accomplish: Daniel Kang from Van Nuys High School. The Harvard-bound student, who expressed gratitude for classmates and teachers, participated via a prerecorded video because he is digging wells in Rwanda.
Perez will be taking classes at Los Angeles Harbor College, balancing community college with full-time work on the graveyard shift at a diner. She also needs to complete three remedial math classes before she can progress to her goal of becoming a nurse.
Tony Booker, a former dean at Banning High, remembers her as a troubled but likable student who pushed the limits on the dress code and who had more piercings than were in evidence Tuesday.
"She had extreme highs and lows," Booker said. "When she had her good days, she had great days. If she knew you cared about her, she didn't shut you up. She was always easy to talk to."
Her easygoing nature hid past and ongoing troubles. Growing up, she moved from relative to relative, attending nine different schools in such places as Phoenix and Victorville. At one point, she said, her mother lived about five minutes away — in a homeless encampment. Perez said she doesn't know her current whereabouts. She said she recently learned that her father, who is incarcerated, had been moved to a ward for inmates with incurable ailments.
Entering high school, Perez began, by her own account, experimenting with drugs and alcohol. She failed classes and fell behind.
She caught up and cleaned up after transferring to City of Angels alternative school, where she credits teacher Tara Race for working with her for two years.
At this point, if it takes six years to become a nurse, she vowed to stick with it: "I will still be young."
She said she realized that "graduation is actually the starting line of life."
"I promise to make you all proud," she told district employees, who gave her a standing ovation.
Booker, who is now an assistant principal at Crenshaw High, looked at the name of the student in his envelope.
"I'll definitely make contact.… I could take off half a day to meet the student," he said. "You have to show the students you care before they care about anything you say."
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