Saundra Farley and Gloria Jimenez, seniors at Jefferson High School in South-Central Los Angeles, remember well the assembly of the new 10th-grade class less than three years ago.
There were more than 1,000 students. "The whole auditorium was full, and people were standing in the back and in the aisles," Saundra said.
Last week the same group, now nearing graduation, assembled again in the same auditorium. This time, they all fit neatly into the center section. Only 350 students were left.
The seniors at Jefferson refer to themselves as the survivors because so many of their friends have dropped out, for so many reasons.
Desire for Money
Some are working nights at fast-food restaurants for a little money. Some are working days, selling drugs and making lots of money. Some are at home, taking care of their babies. Some have traveled back to Mexico to be with their families. Other have traveled no farther than the corner at 41st Street and Hooper Avenue, across the street from the school door.
For most of American history, it has been a truism, proudly repeated, that an ever greater percentage of students were graduating from high school. But since 1970, it is no longer a truism. That year, 75% of students earned high school diplomas. Since then, the percentage has gone no higher and actually has slipped a bit in recent years, says the National Center for Education Statistics.
California may boast that its fast-changing, high-tech economy leads the nation, but about 31% of its teen-agers drop out of school between the ninth and 12th grades, according to the state Assembly Office of Research. For the class of 1983, 119 high schools suffered a dropout rate of more than 40%, and two-thirds of those were in suburban or rural school districts.
Majority Drop Out
But it is the city high schools in mostly black or Latino neighborhoods that continue to experience staggering dropout rates. Jefferson High, in a highly transient section of Los Angeles, loses about two-thirds of its students between the 10th and 12th grades, according to school district figures.
Why are so many young people quitting school? In interviews, counselors, teachers and school officials who see the problem first-hand admitted to being puzzled.
Most noted that schools are a "reflection of the community." In chaotic and demoralized families, or impoverished households in which parents are scraping to survive, students do not get the steady support they need to succeed in school.
Schools also reflect the larger society, they added, where making money, lots of it, is valued more than education. One teacher reported that last fall, a former Jefferson student now in the drug business tossed a wad of cash into the air at a football game. Others commented on students who have returned to campus sporting gold rings, earrings and watches. This is the lesson--that quick money can be made in the drug business--that too many teen-agers are learning in Los Angeles, officials said.
For their part, the seniors at Jefferson said they were inspired to stay in school by the bad examples around them. Their brothers and sisters and friends have left school, and many are now hanging out on the street or are stuck in dead-end jobs.
"A lot of my friends got pregnant. Some had to leave to go to work to support their families. And some just didn't like school and quit," Gloria Jimenez said. "I could see what their future was going to be like, and I didn't want that." She has earned a 3.95 grade-point average and plans to enroll at UCLA in the fall.
"A lot of people get behind, they fail a class and they give up," said Jeffery Adams, another 12th-grader. "They think they can make it on their own.
"You see so many people going bad, friends and brothers and other people. But I wanted to be different. I was determined to make it here."
Saundra Farley said she had a child last year and returned to complete her school work this year.
Easy Drug Money
"I have friends who are selling cocaine," she said. "That's the No. 1 thing--making easy money. They don't think ahead. They think that's going to last forever.
"But I need an education because I want to make something for myself and my baby." She plans to enroll at California State University, Dominquez Hills, next fall.
Despite the problems in the neighborhood and the huge outflow of students, both teachers and students say Jefferson has improved greatly in the last three years. They credit Principal Francis Nakano, who on his first day in July, 1982, arrived to discover that the administration wing of the school had been burned down the night before.
A stern disciplinarian, Nakano has brought order to what had been a crumbling school, they said. He is credited with clearing out the gangs and drugs and cleaning the graffiti from the walls. In the process, he also has developed a good rapport with students.
"Most of these kids have experienced failure of one kind before they come here at 15, and they need some models and some help. I try to be fair and firm and treat them with respect," he said. "I also make a point to compliment them in the morning, tell them they look sharp.
Teachers Who Care
"We need teachers who can really care about these kids. I've got some good ones who tutor the kids, help them find jobs and give them support. But I just can't find enough of those people."
If Jefferson has improved, however, it still has not had much effect on the dropouts. Typically, those who leave say they hate school. They find the classes boring, the subjects meaningless and the routine demeaning.
Judy Haynes, a 17-year-old, dropped out of Jefferson earlier this year but was back last week. She discovered she couldn't get a job because she wasn't 18 and didn't have a diploma, so she was at school to make arrangements to take the general educational development test, an alternative way of getting a diploma.
"I never liked school, at least since eighth grade anyway," she said. "It's boring, and they don't teach you what you need to know." She cited "all about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and other famous people in the past" as the kind of knowledge she does not need.
"I want to learn about getting a job today and they're not teaching that," she said. "So I'm going to check in here, take the GED, and check back out again."
Had No Choice
Amanda Sanchez, also 17, is out of school and working, but not by choice. "Three months ago my father left, and my mom couldn't pay the bills," she said. Her aunt got her a job in a garment factory to help support the family.
"I still want to get a diploma," she said, so she is going to school in the mornings and working in the afternoons. Next year, she also is going to take classes on Saturdays in hopes of graduating on time.
Angelica Tovar, a 10th-grader, also is behind schedule in her studies, and for a reason often heard at Jefferson. In February her grandmother became ill, and her family had to return to Mexico to help care for her.
"Then I got sick on the food down there, and I was in a hospital," she said. Six weeks later, she returned to Jefferson and is struggling to catch up with her classes.
Angela Moses, an articulate 11th-grader, also has dropped out of Jefferson and is quite precise in saying what she believes to be wrong with the school.
"I don't like the atmosphere here," she said. "No one comes here to learn. They come here to talk about what Mary so-and-so is wearing or about some cute guy across the hall. The teacher tries to put the loud talkers on one side of the room and the people who want to learn on the other side. But they usually have to spend so much time arguing with the talkers that you never get anything done."
Last fall, Angela attended Washington High and described it as a more spirited school with more demanding classes. She was particularly impressed with the school's "peer counseling" program.
"If you have a problem, in class or whatever, there's somebody who can talk to you like an adult. Here, they don't have time for you," she said.
Despite her fondness for Washington, Angela dropped out of that school at the end of the semester after an argument with her mother led to her moving out of the house. Last week, she re-enrolled at Jefferson, but she is still hoping to be admitted into Washington in the fall.
Teachers at Jefferson say this pattern of students dropping in and dropping out, or attending irregularly, is their most frustrating problem. At Jefferson, more than a fourth of the students are absent every day, according to school officials. Moreover, attendance falls as the day goes on, so that as many as half the students miss the fifth and sixth periods.
"I was amazed by the attendance problem here," said Carolyn Bullard, a 10th-grade teacher who previously taught in Georgia and Alabama. "One-third of your class is out on Monday. They come back on Tuesday, but another one-third is out then," she said. "If they are here, I can teach them."
Law Mostly Ignored
Under California law, students are required to attend school until age 18, a statute that is massively violated. The compulsory school laws in most states require attendance until age 14 or 16.
At the same time, the state has traditionally forbidden teachers to fail students simply because they are repeatedly absent. In 1983, however, a state education reform law permitted school boards to set a policy that allowed teachers to fail students if they miss, for example, 20 days of classes with no excuse.
The Los Angeles school board has decided against setting such a standard.
"Our board believes that you can't fail a kid because of attendance alone. We believe that every kid should have the opportunity to make up whatever they miss, and with full credit," said Rosalyn Heyman, assistant superintendent for secondary instruction in the Los Angeles district. "I know some teachers don't like that, but I'm proud of our policy."
Jefferson teachers say that without enforceable regulations to keep students in class, many simply disappear for days or weeks on end. When they return, they ask for make-up assignments.
Annetta Lawrence, an English and reading teacher, opened her grade book 42 days into the spring semester. She read the total days students were absent in one 10th-grade class: 21, 23, 11, 17, 37, 30, 13, 31, 10, 9, 5, 29, 17 and so on.
"In the spring semester, it's really atrocious," she said. "They start ditching class, and a lot of them give up. Most of them don't see the necessity, the relevance, of going to school. They don't project into the future. They want something with an immediate reward.
"Among the Hispanic kids, economics is the big problem. A lot of them have to work. Among the black kids, I don't know. I honestly don't know. If they see something better in the streets, they are gone. Sometimes I see them a year later, and they've gone into pushing (drugs). They'll come back to school with a gold chain around their neck and a wad of money."
About five years ago, almost all Jefferson's students were black. This year, however, nearly 70% are Latino, many of whom have recently arrived from Mexico and Central America.
Students Not Prepared
Several teachers said they believe that the root problem for the high dropout rate is poor earlier education. Many students arrive at the high school with a third- or fourth-grade reading ability. Lawrence, who said she was educated in mostly black schools in Alabama, said she moved to Los Angeles hoping to teach American literature in high school and instead has been teaching basic reading.
"That was a shock, and I've not gotten over it," she said. "Here I am, all enthused about literature, and I'm getting kids who can't read."
Although the Los Angeles high schools have been striving to teach reading in all subjects, Jefferson's administrators have to spend most of their time keeping order and trying to round up as many students as possible.
"On the good news side, we had an assembly this morning for 300 kids who have a B average or better," said Viggo Jensen, administrative dean. "On the bad news side, we will go through 4,000 names on our rolls during the year to end up with 2,000 kids."
"On any given day, it looks OK here. There are kids in the halls, going to class," he continued. "But you also know that a lot of them may not be back next week. They just fall through the cracks."
Tracking Them Down
Shelly Berman, Jefferson's pupil attendance counselor, tries to track down those who fail to show up.
"We try to make as many calls as humanly possible," Berman said. "We ask where they were and why they are out. After 10 days, I call to arrange a visit to the home. I average 40 to 50 home visits a week.
"Sometimes, it's 'Grandma is sick in Mexico.' Sometimes they need to care for their baby. And sometimes they are just out on the street and their parents don't have any control. Yesterday, I had a case where the parents came in and said their daughter took off and they had no idea where she was."
Only recently have state and district officials acknowledged the seriousness of the dropout problem. In part, this is because Los Angeles has never tracked individual students. Instead, the district each year reports an "attrition rate" for the high schools, and officials have adamantly denied that this closely reflects the dropout rate.
In 1981, 45,992 students entered the 10th grade in the 49 city high schools. Three years later, in the spring of 1984, there were 25,557 seniors, or an attrition rate of 44%.
School officials point out that some of the original 10th-graders may have moved to another school district, another state or a private school. But the senior group also includes students who have moved into Los Angeles from another school or another area. Since the immigration of families into Los Angeles is believed to be as large or larger than the outflow, many officials now acknowledge that the dropout rate is probably parallel to the attrition rate.
School board President John Greenwood noted recently that the district's figures also don't take into account students who drop out before 10th grade. "My gut feeling is that the dropout rate is higher" than the reported shrinkage rate of 44%, he concluded.
Assemblywoman Gloria Molina (D-Los Angeles) is sponsoring legislation in Sacramento that would require school districts to track individual students so they will know who has dropped out and who hasn't. In January, Los Angeles school Supt. Harry Handler also recommended to the school board that the city district set up a computerized student data system to compile the same information.
A school like Jefferson long has had a dropout problem, but some teachers believe that the sports program used to hold more students in schools. However, since the school district set academic standards for athletes, the teams at Jefferson have been "devastated," according to Tim Moriarty, school athletic director.
Few Are Eligible
"With 2,000 kids in this school, I had only 100 boys and 100 girls who were eligible for all the sports teams last fall," said Moriarty, who also teaches history. "We had a football team with 17 players and a basketball team with seven. The C-average rule is OK. I support that, but the one-F rule is killing us."
Under the school board policy authored in 1982 by Rita Walters and copied widely around the nation, a student must have a C average with no failing grades in order to be eligible to participate in any extracurricular activity.
"The kids here have been labeled failures," Moriarty said. "We should be building up their self-esteem and encouraging them to participate. We shouldn't be punishing them. Rita Walters has just killed off the enthusiasm here."
But several Jefferson athletes took the opposite view.
"It made me want to work," said senior Andre Dunn. "I knew if I wanted to play basketball, I had to go to class and get my grades. It made a big difference for me."
Ignacio Navarro, a senior captain of the football team, agreed.
"I want to play football, but you need an education to get a good job," he said. "You can go out on the football field and break every bone you have, but you won't break your brain. That's what you have to fall back on."
Ignacio, who is going to Whittier College in the fall, credited the C-average rule with "making me work and get to class." He also discounted the criticism from coaches who, he said, "only care about the players when you're eligible. Afterwards, you can get lost."
But many of the seniors credited a special teacher, a coach or a counselor with helping them survive in school.
"My parents, the counselors and my teachers pushed me. That's why I did well," Gloria Jimenez said.
Other students sitting around a table volunteered stories of a teacher who had helped them with school work during his lunch break or of another who had helped arrange an after-school job so that the student could continue in school.
"That's the thing. The education is here if you want it," Jeffery Adams said. "And if the teachers see you're trying, they'll go out of their way to help."
LEAVING SCHOOL IN THE NATION For years, the percentage of students finishing U.S. high schools increased annually. Since 1970, that has not proved true. These figures from the National Center for Education Statistics show the number of high school graduates for each 1,000 pupils entering fifth grade. In California State Department of Education figures show about 68.9% of students who started high school finished as the Class of 1982.
Grade 9 Grade 10 Grade 11 Grade 12 Graduates 1978-79 1979-80 1980-81 1981-82 Class of '82 350,186 343,647 317,141 280,818 241,343
In Los Angeles The Los Angeles Unified School District says that 58.3% of students entering high school remained to finish with the Class of 1982.
Students Students In Grade 10 finishing H.S. % Grads Class of 1982 46,246 26,965 58.3% Class of 1983 44,837 26,552 59.2% Class of 1984 45,992 25,557 55.6%
At Jefferson High School Figures for students remaining to graduate from Jefferson fall below those of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the state and the nation.
Students in Students in Students in % of Grade 10 Grade 11 Grade 12 Grads Fall Spring Fall Spring Fall Spring Class of 1983 884 969 535 518 328 311 35.2% Class of 1984 1,034 988 493 469 369 356 34.4%