Nearly one in every two high school students leaves the Los Angeles Unified School District before graduation day, a rate that is more than double the statewide average, according to a new report of dropout statistics released Wednesday by the state Department of Education.
During the 1993-94 school year, 18,500 of the district’s students in grades 9 through 12 left school without graduating or re-enrolling elsewhere. That translates to a four-year dropout rate of almost 44%.
Statewide, about 20% of high school students drop out before they complete the 12th grade.
The state’s dropout rate has remained fairly steady over the past three years, with about 5% of the state’s 1.4 million public high school students leaving without diplomas each year. That is both good news and bad news, said State Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin.
Given the state’s economic problems and the resulting cutbacks in school budgets, it is encouraging that the dropout rate is not rising, Eastin said.
But a 5% rate projected over four years of high school means that more than a quarter of a million students who would have graduated this month quit school instead, consigning themselves to an uncertain economic future, with few job skills and fewer life choices.
The new figures amount to “absolutely an economic disaster for the state,” because dropouts are more likely to be unemployed and on welfare, Eastin said. “The kids are going to lose, but the state’s economy is going to lose big,” she said.
To cut the dropout rate, Eastin suggested that improving vocational programs--perhaps through high school “academies” that stress hands-on learning in such fields as computer technology and health sciences--might provide more of an incentive to keep teen-agers enrolled.
Bonnie Benard, a researcher at Far West Laboratory in San Francisco, has studied the other side of the equation--students who succeed despite growing up in poverty or even in homes where they are abused by parents.
She said schools that set high standards, give kids responsibility, treat them with respect and “break down anonymity” have a better chance of keeping students enrolled until graduation.
Improving basic skills such as reading and math also can make a difference. A survey of dropouts conducted by Gregory Austin of Southwest Laboratory in Los Alamitos found that most students who drop out do so because of academic problems. The second reason is difficulties with other students, and the third is expulsion because of discipline problems.
As in previous years, the state report revealed significant differences in dropout rates among whites and minorities.
About one-third of black students and 28% of Latino students fail to stay until graduation day, while about 10% of Asian students and 12% of white students drop out, the report said.
In Orange County, the estimated dropout rate was about 13% over four years--well below the statewide rate of 20%. Every school district in the county, except for Santa Ana Unified, registered fewer dropouts than the statewide average.
Ventura, San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties also posted dropout rates below the statewide average.
School district officials in Los Angeles and elsewhere questioned the accuracy of the new statistics, even though they are based on reports submitted to the state by the districts themselves.
Los Angeles Unified Assistant Supt. Sally Coughlin said the district considers its one-year dropout rate to be about 13%, which is higher than the rate reported by the state. But she said the district does not use that number to project a four-year rate, as the state does.
Coughlin said the district’s one-year dropout rates vary from about 4% at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles to about 33% at Locke High School in South Los Angeles, in part because some schools are better at searching for students who disappear and persuading them to re-enroll.
Some school district figures seem unlikely. The Compton Unified School District, for example, which was taken over by the state because of its financial problems and perennially ranks low by academic measures, said its dropout rate was less than 2% a year, which would be among the lowest in the state.
Another set of state figures Compton provided to the state shows that the district graduates only half as many students as it enrolls as sophomores. No one from the Compton district could be reached to explain the apparent discrepancy.
The Stockton Unified School District reported its estimated four-year dropout rate as 60%, the highest in the state and twice the rate of the year before.
Stockton Associate Supt. Elena Wong said she was “appalled at the figures” but wondered if a statistical or reporting error might account for them. “It’s just real suspicious,” she said.
The Paramount Unified School District reported the highest rate in Los Angeles County--12% of the district’s high school students leave without a trace each year, meaning that about 48% drop out over four years.
Assistant Supt. Julie Mayer said she does not believe that half the district’s students drop out; many may re-enroll in other countries or other school districts. And she said the dropout rate calculated by the district is declining.
Some of the students who leave, she said “leave for perfectly legitimate reasons and we just don’t hear from them again.”
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How Many Drop Out In California last year, nearly 71,000 of the state’s 1.4 million public high school students left school without graduating. The state’s dropout rate has been approximately 5% for the past three years, which produces a four-year rate of about 20%. That means that one in five ninth-graders can be expected to drop out before completing the 12th grade.
The dropout rate for ninth- through 12th-graders in Los Angeles County public schools is approximately 28%, and in the Los Angeles Unified district, more than 43% of ninth-graders fail to graduate.
Dropout Dropout Dropout Total Public schools: percentage percentage percentage dropouts in ’91-'92 in ’92-'93 in ’93-'94 in ’93-'94 Statewide 5.2% 5.0% 4.9% 70,683 L.A. County 7.6% 7.0% 7.1% 28,693 L.A. Unified 12.0% 10.5% 10.9% 18,587
Projected Public schools: 4-year rate Statewide 19.6% L.A. County 28.4% L.A. Unified 43.6%
Source: State Department of Education