Pals With a Purpose : Pioneer High Pairs Employees With Students Who Are ‘At-Risk’ of Dropping Out--So Far It’s Working

Times Staff Writer

When Tim was an eighth-grader last year he did not always make it to class and his grades were slipping. He said school was a place he increasingly disliked.

In reviewing Tim’s file, officials of the Whittier Union High School District decided he would be a prime candidate to become a high school dropout. So Tim was among 50 Pioneer High School freshmen selected to participate in an experimental program to help keep so-called “at-risk” students in school. The program paired each student with “special pals,” school employees who might occasionally take students to lunch, send them a greeting card or attend their sporting events.

Grades Have Improved

Tim, 15, joined the program in October. He is still in school, and credits encouragement from his special pal, Assistant Principal Richard Torres.

“My grades still aren’t that good, but they’re way better than last year,” Tim said. “My parents say they’ve seen a big improvement in me from last year.”

District officials started the program, officially known as Pioneer Engaged in Educating and Rewarding Students, as an attempt to reduce the high school dropout rate. In the Whittier Union High School District, officials predict that 24% of the freshmen who started high school in 1985 will not graduate in May. In Los Angeles County, the attrition rate is about 26%.

One hundred students--about 25% of Pioneer High’s freshman class--are being tracked as part of the special pals program. Fifty students were assigned pals. The other 50, without pals, will be monitored to see if the program is having an effect, said Victoria Angel, the Pioneer High counselor who runs the program.

Although the program is in its infancy, school officials are encouraged by its initial success. Of the 50 students with pals, 40 are still in school, she said. Of the other 50, only 30 remain enrolled.

“Subjectively, we can see (that the program) is having a positive effect on the kids,” Angel said, “but it’s good to see that demonstrated in the numbers as well.”

In selecting the 100 “at-risk” students for the program last summer, counselors used a list of 26 criteria, including attendance, grades, self-esteem, reading disabilities and police-related problems, Angel said.

She then randomly selected 50 students to be assigned pals, and sent a letter to school employees asking if they would volunteer time to be a pal. Most pals are responsible for just one student, but a few keep track of two or three freshmen. Once the lists were assembled in September, Angel mailed parents a letter asking them to attend a meeting at which the program would be explained.

Only one parent refused to allow her daughter to participate. “She said she didn’t want her child labeled that way,” Angel said.

Friends Envy Them

Students participating in the program say they do not view themselves as having been labeled. In fact, some students said the program has made them the envy of their friends.

“It’s fun,” said Behelem Fierro, whose special pal is Pioneer drama teacher Karen Lawrence. “She pays more attention to us. . . . My friends say they wish they had a teacher they could go and talk to.”

Added student Rachel Renteria, another of Lawrence’s pals, “I thought it was going to be boring or something, but it wasn’t.”

Lawrence said the special pal program is a reminder that, despite increasingly crowded classrooms, it is important for teachers to cultivate closer relationships with their students.

“This made me focus on these two students. Once they became my special pals, I really ‘saw’ them, noticed them,” Lawrence said. “They know if they need anything, I’m there.”

Angel said the special pals are asked to contact the students at least once a quarter, although most pals see their students more often. Pioneer arranges occasional parties for the pals and students, and Angel reminds the pals to send a card or small gift on a holiday.

The pals also receive quarterly report cards on the students, but Angel encourages the employees not to overemphasize academics.

Robert Cavazos, whose special pal is Pioneer registrar Otila Quiroz, said he does not mind being asked about his grades because “it shows she cares.”

Cavazos said the program initially appealed to him because he knew only a few people at the high school. But he enjoyed visiting with Quiroz so much that he started bringing his friends along to see her. “I come to school happier now, more excited,” Cavazos said.

Personal Contact

For Quiroz, the program provides an opportunity for personal contact with Pioneer students who usually breeze in and out of the registrar’s office.

“I miss being with young people,” said Quiroz, who now has three special pals thanks to Cavazos’ recruitment efforts. “I’m enjoying it a lot. I want to stay in touch with these young men.”

The program also has drawn praise from the students’ parents and other relatives. Yolanda Arriaga said her niece’s academic standing and attendance have improved noticeably since she joined the program.

“She’s bringing her books home, she’s worried about her homework a lot and enthusiastic about her schoolwork,” Arriaga said. “It’s given us a lot of hope.”