School Program Aims to Reclaim Dropouts and Fill Their Needs

Times Staff Writer

"You have been away from school for some time," the letter begins. "Are you happy with what you are doing? Have you asked yourself where you will be tomorrow or 10 or 20 years from now?"

The letter, which was sent out last week to 213 recent dropouts from high schools in San Pedro and Carson, goes on to invite the former students to "return to a different kind of school" that could provide them with the skills and education they need for a "brighter future."

The South Bay dropouts are the first of thousands that the Los Angeles Unified School District plans to contact through "Dropout Outreach," a pilot project designed to deal with what officials say is a growing problem in educating a diverse and often restless school population.

Need for Program

State school officials say one out of five youths drop out of high school, leaving them without adequate skills to find jobs or otherwise cope with the demands of society. Recent reports suggest that the loss rate may be much higher among immigrant youths who cannot contend with language and cultural barriers, on top of the personal and family problems usually blamed for quitting school.

"The need is for alternative programs for kids who fall through the cracks of the regular system," said Camilla Kocol, director of the outreach project, which she described as the most extensive attempt ever made by the district to recover dropouts. "But first we have to reach them."

The mailings designed to do that include a "personalized" letter to the former student in English (and his or her native language, if there is doubt about the English-speaking ability of the family), a brochure outlining vocational and remedial programs waiting for the returnees and a postage-free post card. If the post card is not returned in a month, Kocol said, a second mailing will be made, followed in two to four weeks by telephone calls to youths who still do not respond.

Emphasis on Prevention

"We want to show these kids that we haven't forgotten them and that we care about what happens to them," Kocol said. "If we can do that much, the effort will be worthwhile, even in cases where we don't succeed in bringing the youngster back."

She said the mailings will be extended to other areas of the sprawling district--East Los Angeles, North Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley and the South-Central area--as the pilot program develops. Attempts to reach an estimated 6,000 former students will be made in the initial phases, she said, and a full-scale effort could eventually be directed at upwards of 25,000 dropouts from among about 121,000 students in the district's high schools.

In the longer term, Kocol said, the program will place increasing emphasis on efforts to identify and head off students who are most likely to drop out of school.

Further computerization of student records in the next year or so will enable the district to keep better track of dropouts and help eliminate from the outreach program those who have enrolled in other school systems, moved away, or are otherwise not in need of district services, Kocol said.

She said the program will utilize existing occupational, skill and adult training facilities, but the plan calls for designating counselors and other personnel at each school to meet the special needs of dropouts.

Typical Problems

Dianne Baird, head counselor at the Harbor Occupational Center here, said offering the dropouts a different school setting is an important factor in luring back those with a history of often-painful failure in regular high schools.

"What we're offering them is an adult experience, away from peer pressures," she said. "We will take them where they are, provide any special counseling and make-up studies they may need, and help them to move forward toward their goals."

Nancy McCoy, assistant project director and a counselor at Harbor, said a typical dropout may lack basic survival and communication skills and often suffers from learning disabilities and low self-esteem. A disruptive home life, an unplanned pregnancy, drug use or any number of other personal and family traumas can end the high school experience for some teen-agers, she said.

In the larger picture, Harbor Principal John McCants suggested, more youths may be dropping out because of overcrowding in the schools, poor classroom discipline, the low priority placed on education in some families, "horrendous changes in society that the kids just can't keep up with, and maybe the fact that we have fewer hooky cops these days."

Michael A. Fernandez, a Todd Shipyards executive active in promoting occupational training programs, said, "Many dropouts come knocking at our door, but usually we have to tell them that they don't have the skills we need. From the employer's standpoint, I'd say we need a strong program like this to get these kids back in school."

The educators rejected stereotypes of dropouts as "incapable, low-IQ juveniles" best left to whatever fate awaits them outside the school grounds.

"By and large, these are worthwhile kids with the potential of contributing to society," said Alek Haidos, principal of the San Pedro Community Adult School. "With the proper training to bring up the level of their skills and self-confidence, they can succeed in the world out there."

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