Stunned by a state report showing that more than half of the area's high school students drop out before graduation, officials of the Azusa Unified School District are asking that the district be re-evaluated.
According to the report, released last week by the Department of Education, the district has a 51.8% dropout rate, the second highest among California public high schools. It is topped only by Reef-Sunset Unified School District in Kings County, with a 60.6% dropout rate.
Education Department officials said they are looking at data from Azusa, one of about 30 districts statewide that asked for re-evaluation.
Azusa Supt. Duane Stiff said he believes that the rate is closer to 32%. But no matter which figure is used, he said, Azusa's dropout rate is high. He attributed it to these factors:
* Funding. Azusa gets $2,700 per student each year, less than the state average. "We don't have the $4,500 per student that Beverly Hills has," Stiff said.
* Parents' limited education. According to California Assessment Program (CAP) figures, only 4% of parents with children in the district have advanced degrees, and 20% did not finish high school. One manifestation of this is the emphasis placed on eighth-grade graduation ceremonies. "That means that it's an objective, a major goal," he said. "If asked if they want their kids to graduate from high school, they'd probably say yes. But they know there's a good possibility they won't."
CAP test scores for Azusa also indicate poor academic performance in the high schools. In the 1987-88 school year, seniors in the district's two high schools scored in the 15th percentile on the reading test and in the 18th percentile on mathematics.
In addition, Stiff cited Azusa's large migrant population as evidence that the report is flawed. Sixty-five percent of the students are Latino, many of them children of migrant laborers. Many migrant children, Stiff said, are out of school for a few months each agricultural season.
"It is not uncommon for classrooms to completely turn over in one year," he said. "One time there was a 130% turnover."
Although each district is responsible for keeping track of students from migrant families, some students return with their families to Mexico and do not report their whereabouts and therefore are counted as dropouts.
Susie Lange, an Education Department spokeswoman, acknowledged that the reporting system "is not foolproof" for students from mobile families.
The state report was the first to measure actual dropout rates, rather than attrition, which includes those students who move out of the area or enroll in an alternative education program.
The dropout rate was obtained by counting the number of dropouts in 10th grade from 1985-86, from 11th grade in 1986-87, and from 12th grade in 1987-88, and dividing that total by the number of 10th-graders enrolled in 1985-86.
A dropout is defined as someone who is absent from school for more than 45 days and who does not enroll in continuation school or have his transcript sent to another district.
Using that criterion, the study calculated a statewide dropout rate of 22.7%, and 29.1% rate among Los Angeles County high schools.
Among San Gabriel Valley schools, San Marino Unified School District had the lowest rate, at 1.3%. El Monte was the second highest, at 30.2%.
Socioeconomic Status Cited
Officials in several valley high school districts, including El Monte, Pomona (with a 27.1% dropout rate), and Bassett (24.4%), said they believed that the state report overestimated the rates by about 5%.
In San Marino and Walnut Valley Unified, where the state reported a 5.9% dropout rate, school officials said the communities' high socioeconomic status was the No. 1 reason they are able to keep students in school.
Since 1984, Azusa school officials have begun a number of programs to combat the dropout problem.
In 1986, with money from a state dropout prevention plan, the district hired a staff member to visit the homes of students with attendance problems and stress the importance of education to the family.
The district also established an Alternative Education Center in Glendora, which provides classes year-round for working students, teen-age mothers and bilingual students. Students can determine their own schedules and work toward a high school diploma or take a high school equivalency test.
Most recently, the district identified 40 high-risk ninth-graders who had been performing under grade level. The students were given individual instruction for part of the day, and 93% finished the school year.
"These are students who we predicted would all be gone by November," said Nancy Moore, a school administrator.
No Surprise to Student
Although disputed by the authorities, Azusa's 51% dropout rate didn't surprise one student attending the Alternative Education Center Thursday.
"I can see it's true," said Jason Rodarte, 17, who dropped out three times before enrolling in continuation school. "I have a lot of friends who dropped out, most because they're members of gangs. It's what they're supposed to do."
Rodarte recalled attending a class that started out with 30 students, and shrunk to only eight at the end of the year. Rodarte, though, says he is "paying for what I've done."
"I've got to get my life straight because I screwed up. Now I have a list of stuff I can learn. I probably want to fix jet engines and learn how to fly."