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School Project in Montebello Lets Dropouts Drop Back In

Times Staff Writer

In an isolated bungalow on the campus of Suva Intermediate School in Bell Gardens, several high school students sat in a small classroom quietly studying. Each had a reason for being there instead of in a traditional high school.

Jaime Herrera, for instance, skipped class so often at Bell Gardens High School that, by the time he reached the 12th grade, he had only 40 course credits--180 short of the 220 needed to graduate. Theoretically, he could graduate if he passed a high school proficiency exam, but, said Jaime, 19: “They said I missed enough school to be considered a dropout.” He said it was tempting to give up on school, as many of his friends had.

Elizabeth Perez, 16, dropped out of Bell Gardens High two years ago to have a baby. After her baby was born, she was living on her own and unwilling to leave child care to someone else. Now, she said, “I want my diploma.” But she has fallen so far behind her classmates that she is too embarrassed to return to Bell Gardens.

Working Toward Diplomas

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Instead, she and Jaime are working toward their diplomas in a special state-funded program combining independent study with vocational training. The Montebello Unified School District was awarded a $50,000 grant from the state Department of Education to run a model dropout recovery program for one year. Montebello’s program is one of two such projects the state has funded in Southern California to combat an increasingly high dropout rate in California high schools.

The other project will be in the Los Angeles Unified School District, which plans to operate a dropout clinic for 200 students at Belmont High School in the central city this year.

Montebello is in the process of selecting 32 students to participate in its program, said Gilbert Montano, who is coordinating the project. Some of the students, such as Jaime and Elizabeth, have already been chosen.

Participants may be dropouts or students with a high risk of dropping out because of a record of poor school attendance, poor grades or drug problems. In addition, participants must be 14 to 21 years old and meet federal poverty guidelines.

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Job Training, Placement

Many of the students will come from the district’s independent study program, which primarily helps dropouts and borderline students who have difficulty functioning in a conventional high school setting. Others will be referred by school counselors and the Bell Gardens Youth Services Bureau.

Unlike many other dropout recovery efforts, Montebello’s program will include occupational training and placement. “That’s the whole catch to keeping them in school,” Montano said.

The Montebello district has addressed the dropout problem in a fragmented way in the past, sending some to vocational programs and some to special study programs. But, said Montano, the existing services were never coordinated to focus attention on dropouts until now.

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“These programs were all working fine, but there was no linkage. Now we’ve got an entire package to give a student,” he said.

In the new program, Montebello officials are pooling the resources of the school district and the City of Bell Gardens. The Regional Occupational Program, run by the office of the Los Angeles County superintendent of schools, and Montebello Adult School will provide vocational training, while the federally funded Job Training Partnership Act Program will develop jobs and provide placement. The Bell Gardens Youth Services Bureau will offer individual counseling.

Work at Own Pace

In addition, the students are required to enroll in the district’s independent study program, which allows them to catch up with missed schoolwork at their own pace. Each student is assigned 20 hours of schoolwork a week but must report to “class"--the bungalow at Suva Intermediate School--only once a week for review and testing at a time that is mutually agreeable to the student and the teacher. Many students come in more often to seek help or to finish their assignments.

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The independent study program, established seven years ago, served 500 students last year. Of those 500, director Robert G. Henke said, as many as 70% can be considered potential dropouts. But, he said, 69% of the students eventually graduate with a diploma, earn a general equivalency diploma, pass the high school proficiency examination or return to a regular comprehensive high school.

By coupling the independent study concept with vocational training, district officials hope to improve the students’ chances for success later in life.

Like many school districts in the state, Montebello has not kept statistics on the number of dropouts. Assistant Supt. Salvador Traslavina said the district lacks the manpower and money to find out what happens to students who leave school. “I could only guess” at the extent of the problem in Montebello, he said.

Many Poor Households

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However, district officials said the Bell Gardens area of the district merits special attention because it has a large proportion of impoverished households. Generally, they said, households in which the parents have to struggle to survive economically lack the stable support children need to perform well in school.

At Bell Gardens High School, about one-third of the students’ families receive welfare, Montano said. Moreover, the student population of 3,000 is 80% minority and, said Principal Frances Riley, highly transient.

A study Riley conducted this year showed that an average of 30% of the students leave the school each year because their families move or the students are transferred to continuation school or other special study programs. Riley said that school officials were able to confirm that most of those students enrolled in school somewhere else.

“Bell Gardens is a port of entry, especially for Latin countries,” said Riley. “Many of our students come from Mexico and return to Mexico. They tend to go back for vacation or medical treatment. Also, as soon as the families improve financially, they move out. So we have a lot of in and out.”

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Riley said the school does not have a serious dropout problem. According to the study, last year’s graduating class had a dropout rate ranging from 2.4% in the freshman year to 6.6% in the junior year. Those were students who were confirmed by school officials as “not in a school setting of any kind,” Riley said. That is considerably lower than the statewide high school dropout rate, which has climbed from 20% to 31% in the last 10 years, according to the state Assembly Office of Research.

High-Risk Students

But both Riley and Montano said that Bell Gardens has a greater proportion of high-risk students than the rest of the district, largely because of their lower socioeconomic level.

Montano said many Bell Gardens students find they have to work to support themselves and their families, a situation that he said all too often leads to dropping out.

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But many of those students are stymied when they attempt to find jobs.

“A lot of them want to go to work, but they find out that without a high school diploma or an equivalent they can’t get it,” Montano said. “They end up frustrated,” not in school and without a job.

“A lot of students just end up hanging around on the street. I know they don’t want to do that,” he said. “Our goal is to get students job placement or to get them to return to school full time. We’re trying to get them back.”

‘Shows Me He Cares’

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Jaime Herrera said he is getting the individualized attention he felt was lacking in high school. “When I was messing up in school, my counselor never called me,” he said. “But here, when I don’t come, my teacher calls me. He shows me he cares.”

Jaime expects to have enough credits to obtain his diploma by March. If he can develop some vocational skills in the program, he said, he wants to get a clerical job and save money for college.

Elizabeth Perez said she is optimistic that she also will earn a diploma. “It’s better here because I can come to school anytime. I’ll catch up faster.”

Montano said the district has asked the Southeast Industry Education Council, an advisory group of business and educational leaders, to conduct a follow-up study on the students’ progress.

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