State education officials were full of praise last fall when the Centinela Valley Union High School District became the first urban school system in California to adopt an anti-dropout program modeled on Jobs for American Graduates.
Parents and the press were invited in October to a special presentation about the nationally acclaimed student work program and its goals--the same program that would be scrapped less than a year later by the Centinela Valley school board. A representative from the office of U.S. Rep. Mervyn M. Dymally (D-Compton) was there last fall to hand out plaques to trustees.
What the participants did not know, however, was that a substantial portion of the audience did not speak English and had no idea what the presentation or the program was about.
They had come from the district's adult school, whose head counselor had urged several teachers at the last minute to bring students from their amnesty classes and English as a Second Language courses. Some of these teachers would later say that most of the adult students had no interest in the program.
"Obviously, the only reason they wanted us was to have an audience there," said Arnold Tena, Hawthorne High social studies chairman, who was teaching a class in amnesty instruction for adults. "It seemed like a showcase for (Supt. McKinley) Nash at the time."
Head Counselor Frederick Morgan said Tuesday that there was never an intention to pack the meeting.
Nevertheless, the perception remained among some in attendance that the presentation was staged simply to make the three incumbent school board members look good for the upcoming election, which they subsequently lost.
That was a sign of what was to come.
The program never garnered the support of teachers or their union, and soon after it took office the newly elected school board began questioning the funding of the program.
It is designed to provide an incentive to graduate for students who are believed to be at risk of dropping out. Job specialists employed with the program identify such students, assist them in enrolling in vocational and technical courses, help them obtain entry-level jobs and monitor their job performance for up to nine months after high school graduation.
The model program was created by a Washington-based nonprofit corporation in 1979 and has since been adopted by nearly 250 high schools in 14 states.
A recent national study of Jobs for American Graduates showed that its participants are 60% more likely to graduate than students in a control group and their average earnings are 36% more than their counterparts in their first year after graduation.
Centinela Valley's version of the JAG program enrolled about 500 students in both Leuzinger and Hawthorne high schools, and district administrators said it helped stem the dropout rate during its nine months on the campuses.
But when the board began to look for places to cut costs, the program became a target. Board members said this week that the program duplicated other work-opportunity programs and that those programs are available to all students, whereas JAG targets only potential dropouts.
The current politics in the district also apparently played a role in the demise of the program, say some district employees.
Job specialist Dorothy Williamson, who has been employed with the program, said it became a lightning rod for racial tensions in the district because many of the program's employees are black.