ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE : An Encouraging Report Card on School Dropout Rates

With all the problems facing teachers, parents and, especially, students these days, Orange County got a good antidote for gloom from the state Department of Education: The dropout rate in most high school districts is decreasing. The pre-graduation report card had an additional bonus: The districts where it is often tougher to do a good job improved the most.

The dropout rate for sophomores, juniors and seniors in the Santa Ana Unified School District was 16.2% last year, compared to the alarming 41.8% rate of 1986. In the Anaheim Union School District, the rate was 10.9%, compared to 28.8% six years earlier. Countywide, the rate fell from 19.9% to 12% in that six-year span. Clearly, the schools are doing something right.

The state has helped with special funding for dropout prevention programs. Santa Ana’s efforts begin with students in the younger grades, hoping to instill in them a love of learning that will carry them through graduation from high school. Self-esteem programs begin in kindergarten and last through the 12th grade. Fifth-graders, 5,000 of them this year, tour junior college campuses. Eighth-graders are taught the “economics” of staying in school, including reading classified advertisements to see what jobs are available to dropouts--the minimum wage ones. Those jobs won’t pay for an apartment, car, clothes, movies and all the rest of a youngster’s dream world. In a district where well over half the students speak little or no English, a fact that increases the odds that they will not finish school, officials have wisely enlisted help from 350 volunteers who enter the classroom to tell students about their jobs and how they got them.

Santa Ana Unified School District Supt. Rudy M. Castruita also credits the teachers and the parents, who can meet with teachers before school or after, at night or on weekends; this arrangement reflects the reality of single-parent families, families where both parents work and families newly arrived from a foreign country. The district rightly recognizes that the schools cannot do it all, that the parents must emphasize the need for education and help out at home as much as they can. The parents must sacrifice, too, forgoing the temptation of having a teen-ager drop out to become an extra wage earner for the family. Those are the kind of pressures that do not exist in wealthier districts, where college-educated parents are role models and natural advocates of education and do not need the money earned by a son or daughter.

In Anaheim, Supt. Cynthia F. Grennan faces many of the same problems. For those who are forced to drop out to help the family make ends meet, the district offers Saturday morning sessions, a pale substitute, perhaps, but better than nothing. The district has set up literacy laboratories to help students improve language skills. As in Santa Ana, many of the students have only limited English. Anaheim also has special tutors for children forced to move frequently from school to school. Teachers try to persuade parents not to pressure their children to drop out.

At a time of tough budgets and constant worries that what little money schools have may be further reduced, districts like Santa Ana and Anaheim are rightly doing all they can to keep their students in school.

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