Ventura County's high school dropout rate continued a steep seven-year decline in 1992, with Oak Park High School emerging among a handful of districts statewide that reported no dropouts at all in their graduating classes, according to state figures released Monday.
"Our high school is the closest you're going to get in a public school to a private school education, because we're so small," Principal Jeff Chancer said of his 530-student campus in affluent Oak Park. "Our smallness allows us to keep closer track."
Overall, Ventura County's dropout rate was about half of the statewide average of 16.6% last school year, the State Department of Education reported.
Just 9.8% of Ventura County's Class of 1992--786 students out of about 8,000--failed to complete high school, in contrast to 10.7% the year before and 17.1% in 1986, when such tracking began.
The new figures showed improvements in six of the county's nine high school districts.
The Conejo Valley district's traditionally low rates dropped even lower, to 5.2%, and Simi Valley's rate fell slightly to 11.0%. In the east county, only the Moorpark rate tilted upward, with 10.3% of seniors failing to graduate.
State education officials said Ventura County's progress reflects gains throughout California, but is still impressive because districts here had less room to improve.
Oak Park's accomplishment is striking, said Susie Lange, spokeswoman for the state's education department.
"That's very rare," she said. "Only a few little school districts did it. Even if a school is operating properly, the odds are that they're going to have one dropout."
Whether small school or large, Lange said, the common denominator that keeps troubled kids in school is nearly always individual attention.
"It's having adults or peers who are tuned in to the danger signals that mean a kid's beginning to disengage," she said. "Remember, the statistics sometimes cloud the real issue, which is that every one of these bodies that stayed in school is a success story."
Ventura County had 53 more success stories in 1992 than the year before.
There were 119 fewer dropouts in the Oxnard district, 28 in Santa Paula, 17 in Simi Valley, 12 in Ojai, and Conejo Valley and Oak Park were each down three. Dropouts increased by 25 in Ventura, 23 in Fillmore and nine in Moorpark.
Local educators attribute their overall success to the extra steps they now take to identify possible dropouts as ninth graders and place them in programs that stop their academic free-fall.
In the Oxnard district, for example, 200 young mothers who might have dropped out a few years ago, now are bused to classes at Rio Mesa High School, which offers child care on campus.
"We've tried to remove every hurdle for the young mothers who normally would not be at school," said Gary Davis, an assistant superintendent for the six-school Oxnard district, which has cut its dropout rate from 30% to 7.6% since 1986.
Since Oxnard first received word of its 30% dropout rate in 1986, it has created special programs that match mature older students with disillusioned younger ones and that place troubled students with the same teacher all day.
The district has also decided to keep six school psychologists and 24 counselors on the payroll, jobs that have been cut back in other districts as budgets have tightened, Davis said.
Santa Paula High School's response to a high dropout rate was similar: Identify the kids early and do what's necessary to keep them in school, Assistant Principal Dax Bryson said.
"We have a new program--a school within a school--that catches the students who normally would not come to school," Bryson said. "It's manned by one teacher who teaches life decisions and other core classes."
A team of teachers, counselors and parents work with the potential dropouts, designing a curriculum that requires only two or three days of attendance a week and includes courses studied at home.
At Ojai Unified, the third district with significant improvement, Supt. Andrew C. Smidt said he quarrels with state reporting procedures, but thinks cutting the student-teacher ratio to just 15 students to one teacher in selected classes has made a big difference.
Ventura's two high schools began to use the same strategy this school year, reducing the number of students in some classes to 25-to-1, compared to a 33-to-1 average, said Arlene Miro, director of administrative services for the district.
"We're hoping we can catch the students before they fail," she said.
The Ventura district saw its dropout rate jump from 4.7% to 7.8% in 1992.
"When the increase is just one year like this, I look at it as an anomaly," Miro said. "If it should go up again next year, then I would be very concerned."
At Moorpark Unified, where the dropout rate worsened after three years of gains, Supt. Thomas G. Duffy said he considered the 1992 rates only a minor fluctuation in an overall trend toward improvement.
Moorpark's dropout rate was 30.5% in 1986, three times higher than last year.
"The increase is not significant compared to the dramatic improvement," Duffy said.
A new off-campus tutorial and counseling program for at-risk students began last fall, he said. "We know more about students today than we did 20 years ago--how students can get lost in a system and how to avoid that."
The large Conejo Valley district and its small Oak Park neighbor are different sides of the same coin when it comes to dropout rates.
Both are blessed with the upscale demographics--and involved parents--that school officials say help keep youngsters in school.
Conejo also has strict truancy rules. Six skipped classes results in a failing grade. Every six weeks the district sends parents notices about students' grades and their attendance by class, Assistant Supt. Richard W. Simpson said.
"Once you get a feel for going to the beach, that can lead you to being a dropout," he said.
At tiny Oak Park High, which is shooting for its second consecutive year without a dropout, Chancer said caring teachers, high parent expectations and the sheer smallness of the school are enormous assets.
"When you have 115 kids in your graduating class, it's pretty easy to keep close tabs on the kids," he said. "When you have 2,000 students, that's like being a mayor of a city, and I don't know how they keep track of everybody."
Times correspondent Patrick McCartney contributed to this story.
Class of '92 had just 16.6% fail to graduate. A1
High School Dropout Rates
Percent of Percent of Percent of Number of District 1986 class 1991 class 1992 class '92 dropouts Conejo Valley Unified 4.7 5.4 5.2 73 Fillmore Unified 11.3 6.1 16.0 37 Moorpark Unified 30.5 8.5 10.3 32 Oak Park Unified 6.8 2.7 0.0 0 Ojai Unified 19.7 18.9 10.6 26 Oxnard Union High 30.1 12.5 7.6 212 Santa Paula Union High 27.7 22.2 13.8 43 Simi Valley Unified 10.6 12.1 11.0 156 Ventura Unified 9.4 4.7 7.8 75 COUNTYWIDE 17.1 10.7 9.8 786 STATEWIDE 25.0 18.2 16.6 56,179
Source: State Department of Education