O.C. Dropout Rate Plunges by Nearly 40% Since 1986 : Education: Special programs and changes in curriculum are credited with keeping more at-risk high school students coming to class.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Orange County has reduced its overall high school dropout rate by nearly 40% in the last six years, and a few districts within the county have managed to slash their rates by more than 60%, according to statistics released Monday by the state Department of Education.

The new figures show that 12% of the sophomores, juniors and seniors in Orange County high schools last year left school before graduating, compared to 16.1% during the previous year and 19.9% in 1986.

Orange County schools have consistently shown a better dropout picture than those statewide, although both are steadily improving. The dropout rate statewide has declined to 16.6% from 25% in 1986, the first year data was collected.

"It's not good enough, but it sure is better," William D. Dawson, acting state superintendent of public instruction, said of the statewide data.

"There is no single 'silver bullet,' but there are 1,000 individual things that have a cumulative effect, and we're seeing them pay off," Dawson said.

He cited special state funding for dropout prevention programs at some schools, changes in curricula and teaching, partnerships with business, and a variety of intensified, more sophisticated approaches to identifying and working with students who are at risk of failing.

Since 1986, Orange County has cut its dropout rate by 39.7%. That means that 3,329 sophomores, juniors and seniors dropped out in Orange County last year, about 2,200 fewer than six years ago.

The dropout rates tend to correlate with family income level. The best rates came in higher-income areas: Laguna Beach Unified (3.4%), Brea-Olinda Unified (3.5%) and Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified (4.0%). The worst rates came in Garden Grove Unified (17.7%), Orange Unified (16.3%) and Santa Ana Unified (16.2%), all districts with large numbers of low-income students.

But Santa Ana Unified also stood out for making a tremendous improvement in its rate, boasting a 61.2% reduction in its dropout rate since 1986. Anaheim Union High School District also made great strides, with 62.2% fewer dropouts during that period, and Newport-Mesa Unified improved its rate by 64.4%.

The most improved districts gave credit to the teachers, who have redoubled their efforts to make students feel welcome in school and to help those with difficulty keep up. Districts with many students at risk of dropping out have implemented many aggressive tactics to reverse the exodus of dropouts, trying to instill in parents and students the importance of staying in school.

Santa Ana, for instance, emphasizes self-esteem among students, encouraging them to value their futures and stay in school, Supt. Rudy M. Castruita said. The district also has a mentor program, in which 350 volunteers from the community spend time in classrooms, telling students about their professional lives and how they achieved their careers.

The district has devoted more resources to locating students who fail to show up for class and encouraging them to return, Castruita said. And it has channeled massive effort into parent education, holding night and weekend classes designed to teach parents the importance of reading to their children and helping with homework, as well as keeping their sons and daughters off drugs and out of gangs.

In Anaheim Union, where nearly half the students have limited skills in English, the district has undertaken many similar stay-in-school programs. It also sets up literacy laboratories to help students improve their language skills and provides special tutors for children who move often from school to school.

Supt. Cynthia F. Grennan said many of the families in her district are struggling economically, so teachers and administrators make an extra effort to make sure they do not pressure their school-age children to drop out.

"It would be ever so tempting if the child could, at age 16, exit and earn money to help keep the family together," Grennan said.

For students who feel that they must leave school and work during the week, the district has set up Saturday morning sessions to keep them in touch with education for at least a few hours a week.

Three districts showed a worsening dropout rate compared to 1986. Garden Grove had 48.7% more students dropping out, Los Alamitos had 18.9% more, and Irvine saw an increase of 13.6%.

But some officials noted that the state's method of calculating the dropout rate produces higher numbers than other methods.

The state arrived at its figures by using a calculation that in part multiplies the dropout rates for 10th, 11th and 12th grades. Richard Diaz in the department's educational demographics unit said this procedure minimizes any distortion in figures caused by student transiency and creates a reliable estimate of the number of dropouts in a given class over a three-year period.

But a different result is obtained if each grade's dropout rates are averaged together for an overall figure. In Garden Grove, district spokesman Alan Trudell said that last year, grades 10 and 11 each had dropout rates of 5.4%, and grade 12 had a rate of 8.1%. When averaged together, grades 10 through 12 show a combined dropout rate of 6.3%. By using its complex multiplication formula, the state calculated a rate of 17.7%.

Dropout figures may also appear higher because of the way a dropout is defined.

Supt. David E. Brown of Irvine Unified said the state defines as a dropout any student who leaves school for 45 days without requesting a copy of his or her records. In Irvine, he said, there is an increasing number of immigrant students who return to their native countries after a few years in California, and the foreign schools rarely request transcripts, so those students would be counted as dropouts.

The continuing improvement statewide provided some good news for California's public schools, which have been struggling with exploding enrollments and recession-induced budget cuts for several years and which now face a potentially crippling voucher initiative on the November ballot. Under that initiative, parents could receive vouchers from the funds earmarked for public schools and use the money to send their children to private or parochial campuses instead.

Dawson, the acting state superintendent, said he hopes that voters would look upon the reduced dropout rate, along with other indicators of school improvement such as increased numbers of students completing college-entrance courses and higher test scores, as evidence that the public schools are turning themselves around.

"This doesn't mean everything is rosy, but it does show public school teachers and administrators are rising to the challenge . . . despite having the same level of funding for three years and despite having inflation chomp away at those dollars," Dawson said.

Times staff writer Jean Merl contributed to this report.

Staying in School

Orange County's high school dropout rate has fallen nearly 40% since 1986. 1986: 19.9% 1991: 16.1% 1992: 12.0% Most Improved

The three school districts with the biggest decreases in dropout rates from 1986-92: Newport-Mesa Unified: Down 64.4% '86: 19.1% '92: 6.8% Anaheim Union: Down 62.2% '86: 28.8% '92: 10.9% Santa Ana Unified: Down 61.2% '86: 41.8% '92: 16.2% Source: State Department of Education

Dropout Rates by District

% change 1986 1991 1992 1986-92 Anaheim Union High 28.8% 13.1% 10.9% -62.2% Brea-Olinda Unified 4.2 6.0 3.5 -16.7 Capistrano Unified 17.6 12.4 8.7 -50.6 Fullerton Joint Union 19.9 14.6 11.3 -43.2 Garden Grove Unified 11.9 18.9 17.7 +48.7 Huntington Beach Union 20.1 11.8 9.4 -53.2 Irvine Unified 8.8 5.6 10.0 +13.6 Laguna Beach Unified 4.1 6.2 3.4 -17.1 Los Alamitos Unified 9.5 6.7 11.3 +18.9 Newport-Mesa Unified 19.1 6.4 6.8 -64.4 Orange Unified 21.7 18.7 16.3 -24.9 Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified 8.0 3.9 4.0 -50.0 Saddleback Valley Unified 11.9 8.8 7.9 -33.6 Santa Ana Unified 41.8 24.6 16.2 -61.2 Tustin Unified 17.5 13.1 14.3 -18.3 Orange County 19.9 16.1 12.0 -39.7 California 25.0 18.2 16.6 -33.6

Source: State Department of Education

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