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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE : Schools Develop Staying Power

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With all the gloomy budget news coming out of the schools these days, here’s one positive trend in education: According to the state Department of Education, Orange County’s high school dropout rate fell by more than 20% over the past five years. Even more impressive is that this decline occurred as the county’s schools underwent a dramatic demographic shift.

In the Santa Ana Unified School District, for example, nearly two-thirds of the students now speak limited or no English and thus are considered most at risk to drop out. But Rudy M. Castruita, superintendent of the 46,000-pupil district, has worked with community groups and volunteers to keep children in school. As a result, dropout rates declined from 41.8% in 1986 to 27.9% in 1990--a 33% decrease.

Santa Ana’s programs aimed at potential dropouts range from taking fifth-graders to tour a junior college campus to educating eighth-graders about “the economics of staying in school.” In one class, students must comb classified ads for jobs that could support their dreams of having a new car, an apartment and fancy clothes. (A clue: You can’t do it on a minimum-wage job, which is about all that’s available to someone without a high school education.)

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County school officials say many districts are doing a better job of educating students about the effect that dropping out could have on their lives. Schools also are following up sooner on students who skip classes.

These are tough times for school districts, and they are likely to get even worse as the state decides how much of its budget deficit will be balanced by cuts to schools. School administrators are justified in fearing that some of the programs that keep students coming to classes may go by the wayside. But school districts have also demonstrated that even when the going gets tough, they can find new ways to keep students in school.

When it comes to reducing dropout rates, most Orange County school districts deserve an A for effort.

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