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Dropout Rates Criticized as Misleading : Education: Eight of the 10 school districts in southeast Los Angeles County show increases ranging from 9% to 114%. Local officials dispute the figures.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Most Southeast area educators said high school dropout figures provided by the state are wrong and tend to make the problem appear to be worse than it is.

Although overall figures show that statewide there was a slight dip in the dropout rate over three years, eight of the 10 school districts in southeast Los Angeles County show increases in dropout rates ranging from 9% to 114%. Six of the districts had dropout rates higher than the state average of 20.4%.

The rate computed by the state is based on the number of students who entered 10th grade but left school by the end of 12th grade.

Only Montebello Unified School District and ABC Unified School District showed dramatic decreases in 1986-89. According to Department of Education figures, Montebello cut its dropout rate in half, while ABC cut its rate by 21%.

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Both districts have aggressive programs based on the theory that the only way to make sure that students finish high school is to help them with emotional, social and academic problems as early as kindergarten.

“We haven’t been sitting around here waiting for someone to tell us what to do about the dropout rate,” Montebello board member Paul Chavez said. “What we’ve learned is that every student is at risk, whether they come from a poor family, a well-to-do family, whether they are gifted or not, everyone is at risk at some time.”

Educators in other Southeast districts said early recognition of potential dropouts and special programs are vital to keeping students in school. All 10 districts have programs targeting such students, and most superintendents said their dropout rates are much lower than those reported by the state.

The state’s figures “are totally wrong,” said Richard B. Caldwell, superintendent of Paramount School District, which the report said had a 23.2% increase in its dropout rate. Caldwell said the district has calculated its rate to be about 9%. “I have no idea where they got those figures.”

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Caldwell--along with superintendents from Downey Unified School District, Whittier Union High School District and Lynwood Unified School District--com plained that a vague definition of dropout has spawned an accounting system rife with inaccurate interpretations and miscalculations.

Charles Sanacore, attendance supervisor for Bellflower Unified School District, which has a dropout rate of 14.6%, said that the state has changed its definition of dropout each year and that districts are asked to use “reasonable evidence” to determine a dropout.

“When you’ve got a changing definition and a value definition, that almost makes it an open ballgame,” he said.

Richard Diaz, a state research evaluation consultant, confirmed that the state has refined its definition each year but said it is unrealistic for districts to blame the state, because each district supplied the figures used to compute the dropout rate.

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The school districts “are always saying the numbers are wrong,” Diaz said.

There are some flaws with the procedure, he acknowledged; one is the system’s inability to reflect the true dropout rate in districts with high transiency rates, which are common in the Southeast area.

Lynwood High Principal Mickey Cureton said the district, which is 75% Latino, has many migrant students who return to Mexico or other South American countries during the school year.

Diaz said another problem is that the formula used to compute dropout rates over three years relies on enrollment figures that are recorded just once a year, which tends to inflate dropout figures.

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The state recognizes that flaw and is working to correct it for the 1991 count, he said.

The criterion for a dropout as defined by the state seems fairly straightforward. According to regulations, a school has 45 days to account for a student who has left its campus; if it cannot, the youth is counted as a dropout. But confusion abounds.

Edward A. Sussman, superintendent of Downey Unified School District, said his interpretation is that if a student does not finish school in three years, he is considered a dropout. He also said he believes that students who leave a comprehensive high school to attend a continuation high school or adult school are counted as dropouts, as well as those who are enrolled in pregnant-minor programs.

But Diaz said that those interpretations are wrong, that none of those students should be considered a dropout.

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Although educators argue about definitions and accounting procedures, they acknowledge that even the most optimistic projections do not make the dropout problem less severe.

Educators in most school districts said the only way to fight the problem is with aggressive programs that target at-risk students.

At-risk children are usually defined as those who have shown low self-esteem, poor academic performance, sporadic attendance, poor family life or no understanding of the practical application of education, said Ann Rich, who coordinates testing and evaluations for the Montebello Unified School District.

Officials at all 10 districts said they have programs that target at-risk youths, although only Montebello, ABC and Compton and Bellflower officials said they start as early as kindergarten.

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ABC and Montebello have started multiple programs in the last few years. For instance, Montebello recently hired three counselors to help students just entering high school, Rich said.

Counselors help those students make the transition easier by boosting their confidence, Rich said. The district has also begun a pilot program at Montebello High School to restructure curricula to benefit all students, including at-risk youths.

Rich said the district has also started a pilot parent education program beginning in kindergarten to help strengthen the link between home and school.

Ira Tobin, assistant superintendent of ABC, said his district has an especially active student attendance review board, which hears the cases of frequently absent students in an effort to get the students back on track. Last year, the board reviewed the cases of 160 students, a number that is higher than most districts, Tobin said.

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He also said that while other districts have cut child welfare and attendance programs, ABC officials continue to go to the homes of children who are having problems to talk to parents.

“There certainly are problems with the system,” Tobin said. “But I think that if districts didn’t do anything, the dropout rates would be much higher.”

Times staff writer Lee Harris contributed to this story.

HIGH SCHOOL DROPOUT RATES

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Class Class District of 1986 of 1989 % Change ABC Unified 12.4 9.8 -21.0 Bellflower Unified 6.8 14.6 +114.7 Compton Unified 27.6 39.7 +43.8 Downey Unified 12.2 16.1 +32.0 Long Beach Unified 24.6 26.9 +9.4 Lynwood Unified 41.3 54.5 +32.0 Montebello Unified 25.1 12.7 -49.4 Norwalk-La Mirada Unified 21.2 24.3 +14.6 Paramount Unified 17.1 22.5 +31.6 Whittier Union 19.8 24.4 +23.2

Statistics in percentage change computed over 3-year period.

Source: State Department of Education


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