But Sargent, a wisecracking combination of mother hen and free-spirited aunt, is discouraged.
Teachers complain that students come to school with a sense of entitlement — "seat time" alone, they believe, should be enough for a passing grade. Teachers also say they believe that popular culture demeans education.
But teachers also are among the first to admit that, for many students, the traditional American high school is broken. They can't handle its academic rigor and they chafe at its restrictions.
The large, comprehensive high school — the place where most Americans learned to calculate pi and compete for prom dates — is a 20th century invention that managed to both mirror and feed a giant industrial economy.
Throughout its history, it has been at the center of a tug of war between advocates of rigorous academic standards and those who believed in more of a smorgasbord approach to education.
During the 1950s, the buffet approach was ascendant: Schools tried to offer something for everyone, from Latin and calculus for the college-bound to vocational education and home economics for those considered unlikely or unable to continue their education.
But eventually, the tracking system went the way of bobby sox and bomb shelters.
Today, the operating philosophy is that every student should be prepared for college, and high schools have little room for courses that don't further that goal.
At the same time, especially in large cities, high schools have become huge, with student populations that are often double the number for which the school was planned. It is not uncommon to see 40 students in a class. Counselors have caseloads of 600 students. There is little glue holding it all together.
The result is a large segment of students who struggle anonymously until, dispirited, they give up.
School district officials told The Times late last week that they will unveil a comprehensive plan this week to attack the dropout problem. The district will try to help struggling middle school students prepare for high school and will offer an array of options to reclaim dropouts, said Robert Collins, chief instructional officer for the district's secondary schools.
California Education Secretary Alan Bersin said in a recent interview that the traditional high school model still works in many suburban areas. But, he said, it "is a structure that has not been successful in many urban areas and rural areas."
"Many educators," he added, "believe it is time for a change."
Tracking Missing Kids
Sandy Olson has been Birmingham High's last line of defense against dropouts. He has been the school's pupil services and attendance counselor, a cross between an advisor and an old-fashioned truant officer.
His status at Birmingham suggests something about the importance that the school — and the district — historically placed on tracking down dropouts. The district gives schools no money to hire pupil services counselors, and most schools don't have one. Olson, who began working as a teacher in 1956, is retired and now works only one day a week.
He does not speak Spanish, limiting his ability to communicate with many parents or their former neighbors.