Dropout Problem Burdens Junior Highs : Education: Rate is put at 7.4% in L.A. District, raising questions about how the schools are run. Officials struggle to understand the scope of the difficulties and to make the classroom more appealing.


More than 8,000 junior high school students in the Los Angeles Unified School District dropped out last year, offering troubling evidence that junior highs--as well as high schools--have a serious dropout problem.

Many local educators say the new findings suggest that junior high--an institution often described as being caught in the middle, lacking direction and adequate resources--may be in sore need of an overhaul.

A recent report from the district's dropout prevention office showed that 7.4% of the school system's 117,000 sixth-to-ninth graders--or 8,680 students--dropped out of junior high during the 1987-88 school year, the latest for which statistics are available.

The dropout rate ranged from 1.76% at Dodson Junior High in San Pedro to 28.46% at Bethune in South-Central Los Angeles.

Little is known about the scope and causes of the dropout problem in junior high in part because most states, including California, ask school systems to report dropouts only from the 10th grade on. The Los Angeles district began counting junior high dropouts on its own three years ago, but made the latest figures available as part of school board hearings on the dropout problem.

"We're flying blind right now," said state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig. "We know (dropping out in junior high) is a potential problem. But I don't think people really know that much about it. We haven't been keeping score."

The district's overall junior high dropout rate actually declined from 14.4% in 1985-86 and 10.19% in 1986-87. School officials say the decline may signal better reporting by schools, although others say some schools may be undercounting dropouts.

Dropout studies generally focus on the senior high years, when the hemorrhaging is most severe. Nationally, about 25% of students fail to finish high school, and in large cities, such as Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, the rate ranges between 40% and 50%.

Los Angeles' 7.4% rate in junior high reflects the number of sixth-through-ninth graders who dropped out over the course of one year. Most of the district's junior highs run from seventh to ninth grade, so that could translate into at least a 20% dropout rate overall for the graduating class of 1988.

Some junior high principals suspect that the figures are too low. But others complain that the current methods of conducting dropout surveys are unreliable and exaggerate the problem. Some of the students recorded as dropouts may be enrolled in another district, for instance, but if they have not requested a transfer of their school records, the district assumes they are not in school.

Although he disputed the accuracy of the district's figures, Gompers Junior High Principal Ron Sakoda said, "We know what occurs and we're trying to prevent it. For (students) to drop out at junior high school age is just deadly."

Some of the reasons why students drop out in junior high are the same as in senior high, experts say. Students who are older than their classmates because they have had to repeat grades, who have low self-esteem and are failing academically, or who lack strong parental guidance are prime candidates. Drug abuse, gang involvement and pregnancy also cause many students to abandon school.

But educators believe factors unique to the junior high experience also cause dropouts. District statistics show that most junior high dropouts leave in the seventh grade, when junior high begins. Larry Glenn, an El Sereno Junior High School science teacher, said, "They're coming from elementary school to a big zoo," and some students may feel lost.

Often, several factors combine to produce a dropout. On a recent morning, for example, El Sereno Junior High School dropout counselor Ana Maria Romero gently questioned a teary-eyed eighth-grade boy who had already missed half of the first 10 weeks of classes. The boy told her that he feels dumb and can't keep up with class work. To make matters worse, his parents apparently do little to force him to attend school. In fact, they write excuse notes for him so that he won't be marked truant.

Romero promised to provide him with extra tutoring after school and planned to contact his parents. Without special attention, he might well become a dropout, she said.

Los Angeles Board of Education President Jackie Goldberg said that cultural beliefs may contribute to the district's junior high dropout problem.

Sixty percent of the district's 610,000 pupils are Latino, many of them immigrants. "In some countries," said Goldberg, "the expectation is that being educated means (finishing) elementary school."

In Goldberg's view, this could explain why more than a third of the junior high dropouts in the 1987-88 school year fell into the "no-show" category--students who were expected to enroll in junior high but never appeared at the school.

In other cases, schools find that the no-shows include immigrant students who returned with their families to their native country--Mexico, in particular--or who, because of financial difficulties, moved in with relatives in another area. Many families who move at the end of the academic year fail to notify the school that their children will not be returning.

Some principals criticize the dropout statistics because they count new students who fail to show up for school in the fall.

"These are people we don't know--we've never seen them," said Marvin Gottlieb, assistant principal of Nobel Junior High School in Northridge, where 71 of the 95 dropouts recorded in 1987-88 were no-shows. "If they never showed up, the school never got a chance to work with them. That should not reflect (negatively) on the school."

At Watts' Gompers Junior High, where a 24.59% dropout rate was reported, Principal Sakoda said the problem could stem in part from a shortage of "fun" elective classes, such as wood shop, which were eliminated due to budget cuts beginning about five years ago.

Deputy Supt. Sidney Thompson said junior highs also lack an adequate number of counselors to reach out to potential dropouts. "The thing that burns me up about this is that we know that outreach programs work. But the resources are spread very thin. What happens is pretty soon kids start to slip through the cracks."

Junior highs have about one counselor for every 400 or 500 students, Thompson said. Twelve of the district's 73 junior highs have an additional dropout prevention counselor paid for with special state funds.

At Nimitz Junior High School in Huntington Park, one of the 12 schools in the state-funded program, dropout counselor Ryan Scott said overall student attendance has improved from 93% to 95% in two years, in large part because of special efforts he has mounted to reward good attendance. "We have to get the kids in school before we can work on their academics and behavior and attitude," he said.

In addition, the district runs 16 student assistance centers that provide would-be dropouts with small group instruction and extra counseling. An independent evaluator found that the centers' dropout rate was 7% in 1987-88, slightly lower than the district average of 7.4%. But the centers are able to serve only 4,500 students a year.

A growing number of educators believe that the problem is the basic structure of the traditional junior high, which presents students with too drastic a change from elementary school. Aside from coping with traumatic physical changes associated with puberty, junior high students are asked to adjust to a totally different school pattern. Instead of having the same teacher and classroom all year, they suddenly have six or seven teachers, and different classmates and rooms every period. Moreover, they have to carry books, remember locker combinations and suffer the indignities of dressing and showering for gym. And, junior highs are bigger, more impersonal places, with perhaps 1,000 to 3,000 instead of 300 to 600 students.

Junior high may represent "more of a shock for kids," UCLA education professor and dropout expert James Catterall surmised, "and some kids fail to adjust."

The solution, some junior high teachers and administrators in Los Angeles and other districts across the country say, is to reorganize the schools to soften the transition from the elementary grades and make junior high a friendlier place.

Several Los Angeles district junior highs have taken the approach of creating a separate school-within-a-school for high-risk students. At one campus, Hollenbeck in East Los Angeles, the entire school of 2,300 students was reorganized this year into five separate clusters or "casitas." Each mini-school has 466 students, 17 teachers--including one "lead teacher" who carries a lighter class load and helps supervise instruction--a counselor and coordinator. Students will stay with the same classmates and teachers for all of junior high.

"We're trying to create a warm environment that is academically productive and that makes kids feel good about being here," said Hollenbeck Principal Evelyn Lucero.

Although it is too early to judge whether the new approach will discourage dropouts, Lucero said student attendance already has improved school-wide.

At El Sereno Junior High School, 180 of the 2,600 students belong to Partners in Learning, a mini-school created last year through the efforts of teacher Larry Torres and dropout prevention counselor Romero.

More than one-third of the students in the program are considered at risk of becoming dropouts, Romero said. Teachers are encouraged to collaborate on lessons and confer with each other about their students during weekly meetings before school, an aspect of the program that aids quicker identification of truancy problems.

"One teacher can say, 'Is anyone else having a problem with Joe?' " said Romero, "and another person may say, 'Oh, yeah, Joe's father left the home.' There's more cohesiveness this way."

The program also emphasizes cooperation among students. Students tutor each other, and the eighth graders are encouraged to "adopt" a seventh grader for special attention. Last year, the students and their teachers went on a three-day camping trip together, and more such activities are planned to help foster a family feeling among the students and staff, Romero said.

Tony, an eighth grader who was truant during most of the seventh grade and almost got kicked out of school, said he likes the program. "The teachers talk to you like friends," he said.

Maggie, also an eighth grader, said she would be bored with school if she weren't in the program. "We have fun together," she said, recalling the camping trip. "The teachers know about us and we know about them." She also likes having a fellow student tutor her in math, a subject she said she is failing.

Although only in its second year, the Partners in Learning program has produced some encouraging results. Romero said that a study of students in the program who read below grade level showed they had a 2.1 grade average, compared to 1.5 for similar students attending the regular school.

She also said that almost three-quarters of the program's seventh graders last year signed up for pre-algebra this year, and 80% say they want to go to college. "That is not representative of this school," Romero said.

Another component of the program offers parents training and information on how to help their children stay in school.

Torres, who teaches social studies and helps coordinate the school-within-a-school, said he has high hopes for the program.

"In elementary school, kids really like school. In junior high, something happens that causes them not to like school. This type of program will make the staying power of school greater because the school will feel more like a community."

1987-88 JUNIOR HIGH DROPOUT RATES FOR L.A. UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT Here are the Los Angeles Unified School District's dropout rates for junior high schools. Most junior highs run from seventh through ninth grade, but several have been reorganized as middle schools, which run from sixth through eighth grade. The figures show the number of students who dropped out in each grade over the course of one year and the dropout rate for each school.

GRADE DROPOUT SCHOOL ENROLLMENT 6 7 8 9 RATE Adams 1,688 0 47 55 34 8.06% Audubon 1,787 0 32 33 27 5.15% Bancroft 1,035 0 47 27 30 10.05% Belvedere 2,435 0 22 25 23 2.87% Berendo 2,677 67 62 47 0 6.57% Bethune 1,588 0 162 152 138 28.46% Burbank 1,839 0 26 25 31 4.46% Burroughs 1,373 0 53 28 20 7.36% Byrd 873 0 11 11 8 3.44% Carnegie 1,252 0 9 8 17 2.72% Carver 2,508 0 116 91 124 13.20% Clay 1,516 0 108 66 86 17.15% Columbus 1,115 17 10 11 0 3.41% Curtiss 912 0 23 15 19 6.25% Dana 1,610 0 69 18 30 7.27% Dodson 1,247 0 10 7 5 1.76% Drew 1,708 0 76 42 54 10.07% Edison 2,062 0 67 49 47 7.90% El Sereno 2,477 0 38 40 27 4.24% Emerson 1,507 0 37 20 26 5.51% Fleming 1,387 0 13 13 11 2.67% Foshay 1,565 0 145 84 105 21.34% Frost 1,388 0 19 10 28 4.11% Fulton 1,243 0 29 17 21 5.39% Gage 3,145 158 98 118 0 11.89% Gompers 1,281 161 92 62 0 24.59% Griffith 1,742 0 17 28 36 4.65% Hale 1,595 24 43 16 0 5.20% Harte 1,148 50 48 29 0 11.06% Henry 981 0 11 3 4 1.83% Hollenbeck 2,129 0 49 36 50 6.34% Holmes 695 0 12 2 38 7.48% Irving 1,563 0 22 16 17 3.52% King 2,053 0 45 35 40 5.85% Lawrence 1,613 0 24 13 15 3.22% Le Conte 1,846 0 74 51 62 10.13% Maclay 1,179 0 46 44 40 11.03% Madison 1,516 0 40 34 31 6.93% Mann 1,448 0 106 50 56 14.64% Marina Del Rey 923 0 20 13 21 5.85% Markham 1,437 44 29 40 0 7.86% Millikan 1,444 0 44 36 27 7.41% Mt. Gleason 1,417 0 34 12 15 4.30% Mt. Vernon 2,004 0 67 36 46 7.44% Muir 1,545 0 132 107 112 22.72% Mulholland 1,317 30 20 8 0 4.40% Nightingale 1,856 0 33 24 11 3.66% Nimitz 3,612 69 81 73 0 6.17% Nobel 981 0 41 19 35 9.68% Northridge 937 10 10 8 0 2.99% Olive Vista 1,685 0 29 24 27 4.75% Pacoima 1,677 0 27 17 17 3.64% Palms 810 0 15 7 14 4.44% Parkman 971 29 27 22 0 8.03% Pasteur 964 0 40 41 3 8.71% Peary 1,808 0 27 20 25 3.98% Porter 910 0 10 13 21 4.84% Portola 1,961 60 58 43 0 8.21% Reed 1,631 0 26 9 23 3.56% Revere 1,601 0 99 18 27 8.99% San Fernando 2,030 0 44 30 43 5.76% Sepulveda 1,382 0 28 21 22 5.14% South Gate 4,043 24 29 28 0 2.00% Stevenson 2,443 0 68 44 65 7.25% Sun Valley 2,076 0 41 46 52 6.70% Sutter 1,467 55 24 30 0 7.43% Twain 797 0 28 14 26 8.53% Van Nuys 900 0 13 10 20 4.78% Virgil 2,582 42 96 100 0 9.22% Webster 913 0 32 39 42 12.38% White 1,511 0 29 19 16 4.24% Wilmington 2,079 0 49 28 24 4.86% Wright 842 8 32 28 0 8.08% TOTAL 117,282 848 3,340 2,485 2,034 7.40%

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