A Turnabout for School Dropouts : Many Return Under Programs Offered by L.A. District

Times Staff Writer

Starting today, about 26,000 of them will be saluted, showered with gifts and admonished about the future. They are the ones who made it--seniors who will graduate from Los Angeles' public high schools this week.

But for Joe Zuniga, Kevin Braggs, Alicia Bennett and thousands of others like them, this isn't a time to celebrate--or simply give a heartfelt sigh of relief. They have been too busy becoming parents, raising families, hanging out, getting over brushes with the law, looking for jobs or making up for lost time.

They are the dropouts.

What happened to these three--and to their predecessors from the '60s, '70s and '80s--today happens to the majority in some Los Angeles high schools, perhaps more than 60% in some inner-city schools. Overall, it's estimated that more than 40% of those who start senior high school in the city's unified school district don't make it to graduation.

Yet the statistics don't tell the whole story. Sooner or later--sometimes much later--many dropouts get tired of paying the price for leaving school. And they try to drop back in, through a variety of old and new programs offered by the school district. Whatever route they choose, dropouts generally say it's a lot tougher than their disappearing acts. Nor does trying for a comeback entirely erase their regret.

'Trying to Do Better'

For example, Zuniga, who dropped out of San Fernando High School last year, said he will feel "pretty bad" on graduation day about "not being up there with that cap and gown." But Zuniga, who is learning welding at the Pacoima Skills Center, found satisfaction that "at least I'm trying to do better with my life." He added that he also uses the back yard of an aunt's house to do "auto body work on the side."

Like other dropouts who talked to View, Zuniga spoke easily, even eagerly, about himself. Of the 22 who were interviewed at skills centers, continuation schools or through the new Dropout Outreach program, few seemed to gloss over mistakes and embarrassments, even crimes.

Zuniga, 18, figures he accumulated a D average in high school, partly because of "bad learning in elementary and junior high school." Though he learned little, like other dropouts interviewed, he kept being promoted to the next grade and falling farther and farther behind, he said.

Zuniga struck a recurring theme when he said he felt his school days were hampered by a noisy, disruptive atmosphere in classes and "hassles from gangs." Sometimes, too, teachers were less than sympathetic because they thought he was a gang member. "I never considered myself a gang member. I never wanted to be a gang member," he said.

Gangs and random violence showed up in many forms in the lives of dropouts. Sometimes they were active members or participants. Sometimes they were victims.

Pulling back his thick black hair from his forehead, Gabriel Ramirez, 17, revealed a jagged X-shaped scar, evidence of a mugging on the streets of Pacoima, he said, adding, "They thought I was going to die."

Ramirez, who was attending San Fernando High School as a potential member of the class of '86, has fallen behind because of truancy, he said. Run-ins with the law have also hurt. He has been on probation for petty theft and once was charged with illegal possession of a gun, he said. Now he is catching up at the Pacoima Skills Center and, like Zuniga, is studying welding.

Patrick Scott, an 18-year-old who is trying to make up for missing graduation last year by attending the 99th Street branch of the Jordan-Locke Community Adult School, estimated that he got "kicked out of a lot of schools, 12 or 13" because "I got involved in gangs." He was bounced for "fighting every day, bringing weapons to school, gambling, shooting dice," he said, adding he has also been arrested for carrying a concealed firearm. He finally dropped out, he said, because "I just got tired of going because every time I went to another school I always ended up fighting another gang. . . . Back then I had a car, I wasn't staying in that school anyway."

Scott said he has cut out his gang activity and hopes to get a high school degree because "I know now there's not going to be any real good jobs I can get without a diploma."

Daniel Montoya, 24, smiled a lot as he talked about dropping out in the last month of the 12th grade in 1979 because his grades were too low for graduation.

"I went to school everyday," he recalled. "I was there everyday but half of my classes I didn't go to. I got along with everybody just great. There were gangs but it wasn't a problem for me."

At about the time he dropped out, the course of Montoya's life for the next few years was set.

'Arrested for a Murder'

"I got arrested for a murder," he said. "One of my neighbors--I was 18 years old and my neighbor was a lot older than me and he picked on me and he thought I wasn't going to do nothing. One night I got into a fight and the next week he came down with his brothers and before you know it, there was shooting and there was a big shoot-out. And one of them got shot, two of them got shot and one died. Then they got me for it. It was my house."

In all, Montoya said, he spent four years in prisons for that crime. He has been out of prison about a year and is trying to learn a trade--alarm repair--at the East Los Angeles Skills Center. The center is a boon to him, Montoya said. In high school "the teachers just didn't care" and would "throw you all the work and not explain." But at the center administrators and staff are friends, he said, and he has hopes that he will get a job that will pay decent wages.

If he could erase the past, Montoya said, "I'd be serious about it (high school), I'd take it serious."

While violence figured in the lives of many of the males, pregnancy and early marriage were factors in the dropout decisions of many of the women. In some cases the women had to overcome the objections of their husbands to go back to school.

Alicia Bennett, 17, who was to graduate this year from Harriet Tubman High School, a school for teen-age mothers, said she has been pregnant twice, the first pregnancy ending in a miscarriage. She now has a 7-month-old daughter and is working toward a degree at Jordan-Locke. "I don't feel too bad" about not graduating, she said, adding that she hopes to become a cosmetologist.

Dora Polanco, 20, lives in Cudahy. She dropped out of the 12th grade at Bell High School in 1982 because she was pregnant with her son Richard, aged 2 years and 4 months. She is now at the East Los Angeles Skills Center acquiring clerical training.

"I got married when I was very young," Polanco said. "I was 16 and I got pregnant when I turned 17. And the classes were just getting harder and harder with the stomach growing and all that. I had to walk a lot from different classes, go up the stairs, and I had a very tough pregnancy, so I just had to drop out. I didn't like it but I had to.

Marital Problems

"Then when the baby was born I wanted to go back. I always wanted to but my husband thought I was just going to flirt. He thought, you know, that since I was so young I was going to fool around, not study and graduate."

Her husband "isn't very happy" that she has gone back to school but she is going because she is tired of being "a boring housewife" and "it's time I do something for me."

Shortly after she decided to return to school, Elizabeth Verduzco's marriage "kinda went down the drain." Verduzco dropped out when she was 16. "I was just too involved with my friends and doing what everybody else did," Verduzco, now 23, said. She needed 265 credits when she started back to school. She now needs 30.

She is proud she "stuck it out" despite her disintegrating marriage and the difficulties of caring for her almost 7-year-old son.

"It was hard because I take about 12 buses a day to get myself here and to get my little boy to school," she said. "We go at different times. I have to take him and then go back (home). I go back and forth all day long . . . I would take two buses to get him to school and then two buses back home, wait an hour and a half, then take one bus to get myself to school, one after school, take two to pick him up, take two back home and stop at the market here and there."

Getting around the city is a bit easier now that she has transferred from the Montebello Adult School to the East Los Angeles Skills Center, Verduzco said.

By returning to school, she has earned the respect of her parents and her son Johnny, she said.

"Now my mom's pretty proud of me," she said. "My son's proud of me, too. He's going to be 7 next week.He's in school, too, so every day after supper we sit down for an hour, both of us, and we do our homework. . . . Sometimes it's hard. Last night he came to me and I told him I couldn't spend time with him because I had to study for a test and he said, 'OK, I'll watch TV by myself.' It's hard but he understands."

Pregnancy also figures in the life of one male dropout--Joe Zuniga. The final blow to Zuniga's schooling, he said, was his girlfriend's pregnancy. Joe Jr. is now 6 months old, Zuniga explained, adding that he left school to help support the child and will marry his girlfriend when he has a job.

There are many other elements in the stories told by dropouts. Some of them seem to form a pattern of common experience while others seem unique to the individual.

Although many seem repentant about dropping out, others have no regrets.

Kevin Braggs, 17, said he isn't bothered by missing this year's graduation ceremonies at Jordan High School "because I got to learn stuff I didn't learn." At the Jordan-Locke school, he has been told he needs to "build up" his reading, which is now pegged at the 6.5 grade level. After about a year out of school, Braggs said, "I started realizing there ain't nothing on the streets," adding he spent most of his time "just hanging out or looking at TV."

Ruben Burton, 19, has different reasons for not regretting leaving Fairfax High School, where he was bused from South-Central Los Angeles, in the middle of the 10th grade. Mainly he was bored by school, he said.

"Just about all the courses they were teaching from the 10th to the 11th grade I already knew and I figured I didn't have to go any more," Burton explained. "I got encyclopedias and all that stuff at home, so I could do the work before they could hand it out."

Burton finished his general education diploma in three months at Jordan-Locke and is considered extremely bright by his teacher there, John Balkin. He plans to join the Army soon and then go to college with the money he receives under an Army incentive program. Burton thinks he will "probably study business because there's a lot of money in it."

Roy Weatherford, 20, has a simple reason for never graduating from Antelope Valley High School. "I just didn't like school," he said. Weatherford, who is learning welding at the Pacoima center, said he has always preferred the outdoors to the confines of a school--physically and psychologically.

"School would work out a lot better if they'd treat people more like adults," Weatherford said.

Angela Parrish, 20, is reminded everyday that she didn't graduate in 1983. Her apartment is just across the street from San Pedro High School, a place she "never liked" and remembers for a rowdy atmosphere in which most of her classmates "didn't want to be there anyway."

Parrish, who moved to Southern California with her family from Cleveland when she was a grade-schooler, echoed many other dropouts when she said schools should have better discipline.

If she could change the schools, "I'd probably get some meaner teachers," she said with a grin. "I can remember when I was in grade school the teachers used to give swats. The classes were under a lot of control because kids knew if they did a certain thing, they knew they'd get a swat for it. So they didn't do it."

Break the Cycle

Catherine Spann, who dropped out of school in Mississippi in 1966, is determined that at 35 she will earn a degree and break the cycle of low-paying factory jobs she has had since she moved to Los Angeles.

"I want to be over people," she said, referring to her desire to become a manager or supervisor. In her current job she works at a frantic pace on an ice cream packing line with only 10 minutes off every two hours.

And she noted with some pride that she has come to Jordan-Locke with the blessings of her five children. "They're happy. They want me to go back," she said.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
53°