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School Throws a Lifeline to 60 Sinking Freshmen

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

On her first day at El Camino Real High School last September, Janet Diaz was bumped and jostled, ridiculed and intimidated. “It was like I had FRESHMAN stamped across my forehead,” said the 15-year-old, her face souring at the memory.

It was downhill from there. Her courses were too demanding. She fell in with the wrong crowd. She started to ditch. Just before Christmas, she was arrested for truancy outside a doughnut shop near the Woodland Hills campus.

At semester’s end, Janet had failed five of six classes, flying headlong into a familiar, sad trajectory. And she was far from alone.

Despite its reputation as a scholastic powerhouse, El Camino--the state’s reigning Academic Decathlon champ--found that almost half of its freshman class of 900 had failed one or more classes; 120 had flunked three or more.

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This evidence of severe academic malnutrition galvanized the staff of the proud San Fernando Valley school almost more than its much-ballyhooed triumphs.

Disturbed by the numbers, 60 teachers, administrators and other employees--fully half of the school’s staff--stepped forward, each agreeing to take on a failing student for no extra pay. Another 80 11th- and 12th-graders also signed up to help.

Their effort was dubbed the Ninth Grade Student Achievement Mentor Program, a fancy name for what was essentially a rescue mission.

Studies show that students often leave middle school unprepared--emotionally, as well as academically--for high school, a strange new world ruled by big, know-it-all seniors, where social pressures are amplified by surging hormones, and the homework load is taxing. Without personal attention, experts say, many youngsters become lost and slip into a pattern of failure that weakens their commitment to school.

Educators know what happens to these students who founder at the beginning of high school: They are today’s discipline problems and, too often, tomorrow’s washouts. Adrift in the oversized and impersonal institution of high school, 60 of El Camino’s failing freshmen were thrown a lifesaver.

Some of them refused the help, shunning even their mentors’ attempts to schedule a meeting with them. But most grabbed on--and the results have been promising.

By the spring quarter, the passing rate had risen for two-thirds of the 60 freshmen, and disciplinary referrals were reduced 50% for the whole group. Although grades for the last quarter have not yet been compiled, school officials are confident that the majority of the group will have passed enough courses to become 10th-graders next year.

Zeroing in on freshman failures is critical, in part because the ninth and 10th grades are the years of greatest peril for dropping out, records kept by the Los Angeles Unified School District show. At El Camino, students drop out at a rate of about 5% a year, and about 50% of the disciplinary referrals to the dean’s office each day have involved freshmen with multiple Fs.

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But it is not a common practice at most high schools to systematically target failing freshmen for special attention.

“Quite frankly,” said Ron Temple, a consultant on high school instructional resources for the state Department of Education, “schools get overwhelmed. They have to look at the data that tells them they’ve got an inordinate amount of students not doing well. That should be routine, but it’s not as common as we would like.”

El Camino discovered the scope of its freshman problem when it joined the LEARN school reform network last year. “We were asked to examine all the things that we do well and try not to ruin them,” said Principal Ron Bauer, “and then look at the things that pop up that we can improve.”

One trouble spot appeared when Bauer ran off a computer list of ninth-graders who had Fs after the first five weeks of school. He showed the list to Carole Donohue, an English teacher who also runs the school’s Impact program, which offers small support groups in which students can talk about their problems.

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“We were astounded to find so many kids were failing,” Donohue said. “People think of this school as the most academic school. But many students don’t fit that mold.”

Donohue suggested putting the students into Impact groups. But when about half of the faculty expressed interest in helping, Donohue proposed expanding the effort. The mentor program was born.

By the end of the first semester, Donohue had 60 students with three or more Fs who were willing to participate. Each was assigned a staff mentor and one or two 11th- or 12th-grade student mentors. The freshmen were to meet with their mentors at least once a week and join an Impact group. Pizza parties and field trips were planned as added inducements.

Although mentoring is an old concept, El Camino’s staff went at it with vigor. Some said they took on the extra responsibility because of, not in spite of, their heavy loads. “With 40 kids in a class, you can never get around to every one,” said English teacher Richard Urias. “But working with one student, that’s appealing.”

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Many mentors found that while academic tutoring was their main job, it was far from the only need they would try to fill.

“You find out that [the students] are young, very sweet, and vulnerable,” Donohue said. “And that it is so easy to get lost in high school.”

James was more than lost. He had been an A student in junior high. But at El Camino, he was driven to distraction by personal crises, and, in his words, “I gave up on school.”

First his father left his mother for another woman. His mother started to drink. Then James [which is not his real name] ran away with his 16-year-old brother--who beat him when they argued. He missed weeks of school--about 50 days in all--and his grades sank to the bottom of the curve.

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Then he met Regina Ramirez.

“Some people say, ‘You can’t squeeze blood from a turnip--these kids don’t have the skills.’ But that was not the case [with James],” said Ramirez, a physical education teacher. “He was intelligent, but he was absent a lot. I saw what my goal was with him: He should be coming to school.”

Ramirez told James he could see her whenever he wanted. If he wanted to talk, that was fine. If he just wanted a favor, like making copies for a class assignment, that was OK too. James wanted to talk.

“I’d say something about my dad, and she’d say, ‘Give up on your dad.’ I’d say something about my mom, and she’d say, ‘Forget about it.’ Her message was to just set all that aside, worry about it after I pick up my grades. She told me I was on the wrong track. She told me everything I wanted to be, I can.”

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His attendance is still spotty, Ramirez says, but for James it’s much improved. He was passing only one of his six courses in the first semester; now he is passing four. He is going to make up Fs in algebra and history in summer school. And he has goals: to be in the school theater program next year, to graduate from El Camino, to study film at UCLA.

Like James, Shantise Williams, 14, did well in junior high, earning A’s and Bs. She had been a member of the school choir and a popular figure on campus. But when she hit El Camino, she found she was just another ninth-grader, a little fish in a huge tank with 2,800 occupants, most of them older than she was.

“I just wanted to fit in,” Shantise said. “I wanted to look cool. So I didn’t carry books. I saw other kids, older kids, not carrying books, so I thought, why should I?”

But Shantise said she did not like the Ds and Fs she was getting--she knew she could do better. That was all her mentor, English teacher Naomi McCoy, needed to get started.

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“I told her I want to be your mommy at El Camino,” McCoy recalled. That meant peppering her with notes about a research paper on dyslexia that was due, calling Shantise at home, talking with her mother and an older brother to make sure the teenager set aside enough time for homework each day.

“I hounded her,” McCoy said, “but she knew I cared.”

Shantise, who is passing her courses now, credits the personal attention she got from McCoy for helping her get back on track.

Janet Diaz was bewildered by high school too. But when she started getting Ds and Fs, she told herself it didn’t matter: In junior high she flunked most of her courses and teachers threatened to hold her back, but she got into high school.

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So when Janet arrived at El Camino, she thought she was going to get another free ride. She ditched freely, racking up 30 absences in the first few months.

At first she ignored her mentor, math teacher Shagufta Malik. Finally, after several attempts at making contact, Malik sent her teaching assistant to escort the girl to Malik’s room.

“The first thing I asked her,” Malik said, “was why so many absences? She said nobody cares. . . . She said it’s OK if she fails, that she’ll still graduate from high school one way or another.”

Malik went to work. She visited Janet’s teachers to find out what the teenager needed to do to catch up. She explained to Janet how high school works--that students have to pass courses and earn credits to be promoted to the next grade. She gave her some simple tips on how to get organized, such as writing down homework assignments so she wouldn’t forget them. And she called Janet’s home in South-Central Los Angeles and spoke to her mother, who was happy that Malik would be watching over her daughter at school.

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Janet, meanwhile, was having her own epiphany. She was growing tired of lying to her mother about being in school. She was tired of ditching. When she told her mother she had been arrested for truancy, her mother burst into tears.

“My mom said, ‘You wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning to go to the Valley and you get fails. You’re taking advantage of school.’ She said, ‘Who wouldn’t kill to come to this school?’ ”

During the second semester, Janet stopped ditching and started meeting with Malik twice a week. Her grades picked up. At a recent session, she shared news of her latest triumphs. A perfect score on a math quiz. One hundred extra points for turning in an English report early. An A on a history test about Africa.

“That’s wonderful!” Malik gushed. “I’m proud of you.”

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Janet beamed. The girl who ran away from her classes now says she wants to add another accomplishment to her growing tally: the perfect attendance award. In the 10th grade.


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