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Trying Their Best to Turn Young Lives Around : Schools Pull Out All the Stops in Search of Ways to Push Dropout Rate Down

Times Staff Writer

In San Ysidro, special counselors now identify and work with at-risk students and their parents as early as kindergarten. In Oceanside, educators have reorganized primary schools to get help to at-risk students much quicker and in the regular classroom. At Freese Elementary in Southeast San Diego, the entire school has ongoing programs in class and on the playground to build students’ self-esteem and make them feel positive about study.

At Montgomery High in Palm City, potential dropouts are taken on tours of classes to see students who do carry out their assignments, carry on focused discussions and enjoy their teachers. At Crawford High in East San Diego, students one or more grades behind in studies are grouped together for much of the day in a family-type setting that emphasizes social interaction as well as academics. Across town at the San Diego city schools’ Bandini Center, teachers give students about to drop out a semester of individual instruction and a part-time job before attempting to place them back at regular junior or senior high schools.

Experimental Programs

From school to school throughout San Diego County, educators are experimenting with a host of approaches to the problem of students at risk of dropping out. In many cases, schools are using similar concepts but stressing different aspects. This makes evaluation difficult: Programs overlap and there is poor communication between districts about what works and what doesn’t.

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But county educators reflect the concern of colleagues nationwide in saying they have no alternative but to try a wide variety of strategies to salvage the lives of a good number of future adults.

While the dropout problem is not new, administrators emphasize that the changed nature of American economics means fewer manufacturing and other career-level jobs for young adults without basic reading and math skills. In addition, students who leave school today are disproportionately concentrated in minority groups and in lower socioeconomic levels. National figures show that dropouts account for 35% of the nation’s unemployed and 71% of the prison population.

In the San Diego Unified School District, the nation’s eighth-largest, 26% of all high school students who enter ninth grade drop out before graduating four years later. The rate is almost 40% for Latinos and 30% for blacks. In raw numbers, more than 2,000 students will leave city schools this year without earning a high school diploma.

“For reasons of economics and ethnicity, the problem is bigger today than, say, 20 years ago, but it is just beginning to form in the public consciousness,” said Bertha Pendleton, deputy superintendent for San Diego city schools, who heads the district’s efforts for at-risk students.

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To focus on the issue in San Diego, several public agencies and private companies are sponsoring a conference Thursday and Friday to highlight key theories and programs as solutions and to solicit sustained support from corporations and social agencies.

The conference, at the Town & Country Convention Center, culminates this year’s efforts by a joint schools/industry round-table group to bring more coordination to the at-risk problem. The group will soon establish a countywide hot line that will refer troubled students or their parents to the nearest dropout recovery program or counseling agency.

There is not much mystery to spotting an at-risk child, commonly defined as an elementary school student who is reading one or more years behind his or her grade level, or a high-school student behind in credits needed for graduation.

“It’s tragic when you see a teacher or principal pointing to a child in the first or second grade and saying, ‘Hey, this kid isn’t going to make it,’ ” said Dan Armstrong, information officer for the Oceanside Unified School District.

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Pendleton cites research showing that a decision to drop out usually stems from poor classroom performance and socially based problems, including home life.

“What is known is that the characteristics start in early years, in kindergarten, first or second grades, and that we need to pay much more attention to children at that level, to have more emphasis on dropout prevention so that we don’t have to work on recovery later,” Pendleton said.

Most at-risk students or dropouts talk about the anonymity of their classes, of the lack of attention they believe has been paid to them, Pendleton said. Past remediation programs that have stressed only academics haven’t been enough, and new efforts must involve families, as well as community service agencies, she added.

“And of course, everything works best when teachers have a clear vision of what they should be doing,” Pendleton said, hitting on a point often made at individual schools: that, ultimately, each at-risk student has to be approached one-on-one by a caring teacher or counselor.

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Early Intervention

Pendleton’s boss, San Diego district Supt. Tom Payzant, served on a special U. S. Department of Education committee last year that concluded that no single program will prevent dropouts. But the group of urban district superintendents from around the country did recommend early intervention--before kindergarten in some cases--creation of a positive school climate with discipline and self-confidence, high academic expectations, strong teachers, a wide range in curriculum and extensive community participation.

Oceanside educators last year concluded that the district’s state- and federally funded remediation programs were not having the desired effects. They moved to reorganize their schools, providing elementary schools with a resource teacher who receives at-risk students from teachers and who can immediately call on reading specialists, parents, the principal or any other person to work with the child.

“We decided, ‘Let’s use our existing program better, to identify at-risk kids earlier,’ ” said William Bragg, assistant superintendent for instruction in Oceanside. “Let’s try as much as possible to help the child within the regular classroom environment, where he or she has not been successful, rather than always pulling the child out of the class like a yo-yo for remedial instruction.

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“The pullout is easier to do, but the question is whether the skills will transfer back to the regular classroom, which is key for long-term success.”

Bob Rowe serves in the resource role at Oceanside’s Palmquist School. “For example, we got an extended day for our bilingual students so they could stay after, not as punishment, but to work cooperatively in small groups of three on their skills, as an alternative to being pulled out of regular class and missing instruction,” Rowe said. “But that took my arranging for a teacher to stay, for a later bus and for parent cooperation.”

In another instance, a reading specialist who was put into a classroom to help one student ended up assisting five additional children.

“And we stress parental support, making sure that things are followed up on,” Rowe said.

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Added Palmquist Principal Mary Gleisberg, “The school must nurture parenting, even though we often have to work through the initial defensiveness of the (mother or father), who themselves may not have had a positive experience with school.”

Schoolwide Spinoff

The program ties in with overall school improvement efforts, Bragg said, noting that a trend toward poor attendance among at-risk students at Laurel School has led to a schoolwide project to get students on campus each day.

“There are no guarantees, but if we don’t catch the student with subtle symptoms, of missing a day or two of school each week, who is having only marginal success, then we’ve got an even bigger problem several years later when the kid is in junior or senior high,” Bragg said.

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San Ysidro Elementary School District administrators are also targeting kids at an early age to boost motivation and improve attitudes toward school on the part of both the child and the parents.

Their SMART program pulls together existing efforts in the schools and in the heavily Latino community along the border. The aim is to identify at-risk students and pair up to 50 at a time with part-time special counselors hired under a state grant.

“If the parent doesn’t feel that school has value, that sense is transmitted to the kid, and, by the third or fourth grade, the children don’t see themselves having future success in school,” said Lorraine Ramirez, the program coordinator.

Or, as counselor Ruth Estrada-Bucio noted, in many cases the parent doesn’t require the child to go to school at all.

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In stressing the role of parents, Ramirez points out that many children come from highly transient home lives where both parents may work odd hours, where the student doesn’t have a set time to eat or sleep from day to day.

“And then the kid comes into a highly structured environment like the school, and there is no connection, there is no reinforcement at home,” she said.

“We try to serve as an advocate for the child, to identify certain things needed in the classroom, but especially to improve the social environment for them,” Ramirez said.

Step at a Time

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Success is measured in small doses. Counselor Melinda Cardenas received a phone call from a mother who had seemingly disappeared several weeks ago with the child Cardenas had been helping. They are now living in San Diego, Cardenas said, and the mother has promised to enroll her child in a new school after the holidays.

“Maybe without our program, the mother might have let the matter go for months,” Cardenas said. “Maybe the child asked the mother about school because of the work we did.”

San Ysidro students who make it into the ninth grade usually attend Montgomery High, where Principal Alan Sachrison has several alternatives for at-risk students, including computer-aided independent study, adult school and continuation school. Often by the time an at-risk student gets to the high school level, preventive programs alone are not enough.

“We’re not willing to say to the at-risk student that you will make it or not within the traditional structured environment,” Sachrison said, “but rather we try to find something to get the student going, whether it involves just better study habits or trying to resolve a conflict with their family or with the student’s baby or whatever. The key is to maintain them in some program.”

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Sachrison also is trying a new program with at-risk ninth-graders to keep as many as possible through graduation.

Teacher Carol Dickson is using computers to improve study skills and basic reading and writing of 100 students, as well as introducing them to basic vocational skills and boosting their self-esteem. A state grant funds the program.

For starters, Dickson has had her group sit in on classes, two or three at a time, from history to biology to show them that many students do study and enjoy school. Later the students write about their impressions.

Wrote one student: “The kids were quiet and friendly with the teacher. . . . I think the kids are well-behaved in this class, they ask questions whenever they don’t understand something.”

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Dickson said her “Club Med” tours are designed to establish positive peer pressure among students who for a long time have not found school rewarding.

“Hey, this isn’t easy,” Dickson cautioned. “After two months of this, I contemplated giving up teaching after 14 years in the business because the class was like having 30 squirrels in the room at the same time.”

A former Montgomery assistant principal, now consulting at the school as an official of the San Francisco-based Quality Education project, helped increase parent turnout at back-to-school night this fall from 80 last year to almost 900. Each teacher agreed to call at least 20 parents and personally invite them to the evening presentation.

“Some of the high-risk kids came with their parents, and that actually is modeling the notion that it is OK to succeed in school,” Larry Perondi said. “And there is an equal payoff with the teachers as well because they see that parents can and do care, and that teachers can do something to get parents involved.”

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Dickson said that students whose parents came to the open house are doing better than those whose parents did not come.

The San Diego Unified School District, with more than $1 million in available state and federal funding, has a plethora of projects involving individual schools, clusters of different-level schools and joint efforts with private companies or nonprofit community agencies. Pendleton admits that up until now, officials have sometimes lost sight of which programs seem to be working and which do not.

Among the newest and most promising is Crawford High’s Partnership Academy--a school within a school, modeled after one first tried in the San Francisco area--which began this fall. Using state funds guaranteed on an indefinite basis, up to 90 at-risk students are grouped for several periods a day in classes of no more than 25--compared to a normal 33 to 38--for English, science, social studies and math. Specially picked teachers are provided aides, as well.

“We’re giving the kids a sense of identity as well as the rigorous academic skills,” said Nancy Shelburne, Crawford principal. “Hopefully this will be more than a piecemeal or Band-Aid solution. The kids know how hard it is to master a subject at the ninth or 10th grade if they are three or four years behind in basic skills. In the academy, they are finding that the teacher knows everyone by name, that no one can go off quietly in the corner and be ignored, that they won’t be allowed to float but instead will be required to have goals.

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“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but we do need to make sure that every program has a teacher who really cares about kids,” Shelburne said.

The academy’s math teacher, Gail Schnell, has stimulated a majority of her students who failed or managed only a D in general math last year--a remedial course--into earning Cs and Bs in regular algebra this fall.

“I am enthusiastic, that is true,” Schnell said. “But the small class size really helps. I can get to each student and give them the attention they need; I can follow them in the math lab and get them one-on-one assistance; I can link the algebra to career goals, like setting up a business in fashion, which most of them can identify with.

“We work hard. We gave them all three-ring binders and pencil cases, and we check up on them regularly. All of this is just starting, but curriculum, self-esteem, small groups, all of it is important.”

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Peer Pressure

In Freddie Gray’s partnership English class, students actually tell other students not to talk and to work instead on their vocabulary lists or complete essays on what they do during a typical 14-hour period. That bright side is tempered, however, by what those essays reveal. One student listed the names of television shows, one after another, that she watched during a five-hour period in the evening, time Gray would rather see used for study.

“I try to get across to them that I am like a parent to them while they are in class,” Gray said. “But there are limitations to this program like there are to anything we try. We need to find a way to infuse parts of different programs into each other.”

Several other district pilot projects emphasize job training as a component to dropout prevention or recovery, based on the reality that most of the at-risk students will not go to college despite district policy to prepare all students for post-secondary education.

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The most popular model is Project STEP, a summer program held the past three years that combines remedial reading and math instruction in the morning with a job in the afternoon. Students receive drug and sex counseling during the school year, along with a guarantee of a job the following summer if participation is satisfactory the first summer.

As yet, there are no firm figures that STEP, funded by the Ford Foundation in San Diego and several other cities, has stemmed dropouts. Nevertheless, the district is putting its own funds into the program next summer.

“You can’t wait for all the numbers to come in before you do something,” Pendleton said. She refuses to be daunted by criticism labeling as unrealistic the district goals that call for reducing the four-year dropout rate by 50% and increasing by 25% the number of students enrolled in prevention and recovery programs.

“You set ambitious goals, and, whether we can reach them or not, they can provide a real challenge, to try and get a common thrust and effort going throughout the district and the community,” she said.

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