Today's teens encounter the same problems that have plagued high school students for decades: academic failure, disciplinary trouble, disinterest, financial difficulty and unplanned pregnancy.
Yet never have so many given up and dropped out. If the trend continues, almost half of all high school students will leave the Los Angeles Unified School District before graduation day, a figure more than twice the state average, reports the state Department of Education.
Experts believe campus violence and a rise in apathy are behind the dramatic numbers.
"I don't think parents or kids really value the importance of an education like they used to," says Gale Pauley, an outreach consultant for the district's Alternative Education and Work Center, a dropout recovery program.
Pauley and other educators will devote the school year to trying to keep wayward students on track toward a diploma. Often, that means adapting the regimen to fit a teen-ager's needs. Here and on E5 are the stories of three Los Angeles-area teens who have dropped out, then dropped back in--at least for now.
Seven months after leaving Glendora High School, Frank Pichardo, 15, is surprised by his own capabilities.
"In high school, I just didn't really care," Frank says. "Now it's like, 'Wake up, dummy.' "
At Salidad Enrichment Action, a program in South El Monte for at-risk teen-agers, Frank is receiving good grades for the first time in a while. "My grammar level is really high," he boasts.
At Glendora High, things were different. He went to class, but would goof off when he wasn't falling asleep. He did time in detention and was suspended for three days after a fight--"the guy said something about my mom."
Then, halfway through his freshman year, he was expelled. "This kid had a film canister that smelled like marijuana, and when the teacher called the narcs, he said it was mine," Frank says. Administrators also found a razor blade in his backpack, which he says he had for "stupid reasons--just in case something happened."
After his expulsion, Frank's adoptive parents tried to put him into Azusa High School, near his home, but officials there rejected him because of his record.
Finally, he was arrested for robbery, an incident he declines to discuss. A judge placed him on informal probation, giving Frank until July to get a job or be in school.
After "sitting around at home" for so long, Frank says he is enjoying Salidad, where he is allowed to work at his own pace and with fewer distractions.
He says that he never really intended to leave Glendora High and that he "definitely" wants to graduate from high school: "After I got kicked out, I was thinking that it would be hard, but I never changed my mind."
Under state guidelines, Frank qualified as a dropout because he missed 45 consecutive school days after his expulsion. He has the option of returning to any public school that will accept him, but he plans to continue at Salidad, where he believes he functions better. "No one ever called me dumb," he says. "My high school teachers just said I wasn't using my potential."
Inspired by his biological mother, a court stenographer, Frank hopes to go on to law school and become an attorney.