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Board OKs More Funds to Stem the Minority School-Dropout Tide

Times Staff Writer

San Diego city school trustees gave tentative approval Tuesday to the spending of more money on programs to improve the poor academic standing of many minority students. However, they also told top administrators that they want more accountability.

In essence, the school board--in a long and occasionally intense session--said it will spend more funds to try and stem the the dropout tide, especially among black males, but that principals and teachers must be held accountable for bringing about improvements, however modest, over the next several years. The board told the staff to set reasonable outset goals that can be reached through hard work, rather than targeting long-range outcomes that have little expectation of being met.

The board heard a staff proposal to give geographic clusters of schools, which include a high school and the junior highs and elementary schools surrounding it, up to $100,000 to manage better the many dropout programs and initiatives already under way.

Trustees also showed support for a $250,000 pilot program at four schools with large numbers of black males that would set up special counselor advocates to give the students additional counseling, adult mentors, academic support and other measures.

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Controversial Plan

In addition, a majority of board members said they will stay the course with their controversial plan for Gompers Secondary School in Southeast San Diego. A still-divided Gompers staff has been ordered to give neighborhood students, almost all of them minority, greater access to the school’s special math-science program heretofore limited to only a few resident students and an equal number of white students who bus to Gompers.

Final action on the dropout and black male proposals is scheduled for next week. The board on Tuesday did approve creation of a parent-teacher study committee at Madison High School in Clairemont to decide whether the Madison community wants to close the campus during lunch and prohibit students from leaving.

School district administrators admitted in their dropout report Tuesday that in many ways they are doing an inadequate job of managing the myriad programs in place to improve student academic performance and lower the number of dropouts.

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Projects to address the same problems are often implemented separately in varying degrees from school to school, even within the same cluster, without the necessary coordination to make sure that students retain the same services as they move from an elementary to a junior- or senior-high.

Even within a particular school, new ideas that develop from a pilot program often fail to become part of the overall academic program, deputy Supt. Bertha Pendleton said.

Last month, administrators conceded that they had failed to do sufficient follow-up at a much-publicized new dropout prevention program to know whether students enrolled in the special classes returned to their regular schools or dropped in spite of the intervention. Only on Tuesday was Pendleton able to tell trustees that the new program has so far succeeded in maintaining severely at-risk students in school.

In an effort to get more results from all the initiatives, Pendleton proposed that schools within a given cluster set up formal planning processes so that ideas and strategies can be more widely and consistently implemented. Although a few clusters have coordinated individual projects, none so far have attempted ongoing general coordination.

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Goals for Attendance

The process would include setting up goals for attendance, achievement, parent involvement, and dropout reduction for each cluster, as well as coming up with ideas and implementation deadlines.

There would also be money, up to $100,000 a year, made available to clusters that come up with specific plans. In addition, those clusters that improved attendance--considered the single most important predictor for future dropouts--would receive a portion of the money collected by from the state as a result of showing higher attendance rates.

Trustee Shirley Weber suggested that Pendleton and Supt. Tom Payzant also consider appointing a “dropout czar” to coordinate the more than a dozen programs. However, Payzant said that while more supervision is needed, he does not want to send a message to individual teachers and principals that they could interpret as giving them less responsibility for making students more successful.

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And Pendleton emphasized that, despite all the intervention programs, the key to boosting the performance of students, especially black and Latinos who drop out in excess of 40% during their high school years, remains in improving regular classroom instruction.

Pendleton’s plan for black males, who perform more poorly than any other ethnic group or gender in the city, calls for appointing four black male advocates, probably special counselors, to work at four pilot schools: Knox Elementary and Gompers, its allied junior high; and at Fulton Elementary and Bell Junior High. The schools have about 850 black male students among them.

The advocates would be charged with a wide variety of duties intended to help improve attendance, increase the small number of black males who now achieve grades of B or better and improve self-esteem, among other items.

Trustee Jim Roache spoke for the board in finding merit with the plan, except that “this board always is presented grandiose objectives and goals that we never attain. . . . I want a few more concrete and attainable objectives, and say here they are, so that, if a school fails, we will withdraw the money and take it elsewhere.”

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