Dropout

Birmingham High School dropout Elias Fuentes spends an idle moment in the parking lot of a Van Nuys restaurant. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times / May 19, 2005)

On a September day 4 1/2 years ago, nearly 1,100 ninth-graders — a little giddy, a little scared — arrived at Birmingham High School in Van Nuys. They were fifth-generation Americans and new arrivals, straight arrows and gangbangers, scholars and class clowns.

On a radiant evening last June, 521 billowing figures in royal blue robes and yellow-tasseled mortarboards walked proudly across Birmingham's football field, practically floating on a carpet of whoops and shouts and blaring air horns, to accept their diplomas.

It doesn't take a valedictorian to do the math: Somewhere along the way, Birmingham High lost more than half of the students who should have graduated.

What happened to the Class of 2005?

It is a crucial question, not just for Birmingham but for all American schools.

High school dropouts lead much harder lives, earn far less money and demand vastly more public assistance than their peers who graduate.

To understand why students leave high school and what they do next, six Times reporters and two photographers spent eight months studying Birmingham — by most measures a typical Los Angeles high school — and interviewing hundreds of former students and their parents, teachers, friends and siblings.

These students failed high school and high school failed them. Yet most haven't given up on education.

The most likely place to find someone who had left Birmingham turned out to be in another school. More than 350 members of the Class of 2005 left to study elsewhere — about half at other traditional high schools and about half at alternatives like vocational school or independent study.

Those who transferred to traditional schools were more likely than not to graduate on time. But of those who went to alternative schools, fewer than one in three received a diploma or its equivalent.

The more students transferred, the less likely they were to graduate — an ominous development in a district in which one-quarter of the students change schools annually. Of 18 students who attended three or more schools, only one graduated.

For students at Birmingham, the act of dropping out was generally the last twist in a long downward spiral. Sometimes it began as early as elementary school. Year after year, students were allowed to fail upward, promoted despite a trail of Ds and Fs.

"Here you can get straight Fs," said Barbara Mezo, a teacher at Mulholland Middle School, which sends students to Birmingham, "and the best they can do is keep you out of eighth-grade graduation ceremony."

Then came high school, where credits were granted only for passing grades. Failing students found themselves on a treadmill, never reaching their goal of 230 credits for graduation. And with an increased focus on improving student performance, schools have little incentive to keep those who fail.

By the time he turned 18, Elias Fuentes had just 95 credits — enough to place him in 10th grade, next to 15- and 16-year-olds. Birmingham officials "just told me I have to leave," he said. "They said, 'The best thing you can do is enroll in an independent school so you can work at your own pace.' "

Instead, he went to work at a Sears store in Burbank, unloading televisions, DVD players and refrigerators for $7.70 an hour.

About two weeks before Birmingham's graduation, Fuentes agonized over what to tell his extended family. "They're kind of expecting an invitation to graduation," he said. "I have to tell them soon, my uncles and auntsÂ…. It's not that I want to hide it. It's just that it's hard to tell somebody who had so much confidence in me that I messed up."

For many students, frustration over failure was compounded by personal problems — pregnancies, financial pressure to work, drugs, brushes with the law. Parents became ill or died, sometimes violently. One girl lost her boyfriend when he was shot seven times in the chest. There was often pressure from friends who were also failing.

Many began cutting classes and were surprised to find that there were few, if any, consequences. Soon, some were racking up 30 or 40 — even 60 — absences in a 90-day semester.