Onetime Dropout Now a Key Voice

Times Staff Writer

When Debra Duardo, who arguably holds the most crucial job in the Los Angeles school system, comes face to face with a high school dropout, she knows exactly what she'll say: Trust me, you're making a mistake.

As a freshman, Duardo made it through about a week of classes at Hollywood High before calling it quits. Like countless dropouts before and after her, she failed to see the point of a diploma. And she found no one in the school making the case why she should stay.

Unlike many dropouts, however, Duardo returned to school. Today, she is filling a newly created position aimed at stemming the steady flow of students quitting Los Angeles schools.

"Word got out, I guess, that I had some knowledge about this, some insights and passion," said Duardo, 43, of the decision by school district officials to hire her over other applicants. "The only way to have a chance at being successful is to finish high school. I really believe that. I am proof of that."

Duardo's qualifications come from more than having been a dropout. Before starting the job earlier this summer, Duardo spent two years as a pupil services coordinator for one of Los Angeles Unified School District's local offices. There, she oversaw school staff responsible for tracking dropouts and bringing them back. Before that, she was an assistant principal at Le Conte, the middle school she attended before dropping out.

Her charge as director of dropout prevention and recovery, Duardo said, is simple. "I'm here to increase the number of our students who earn a diploma -- to reduce the dropout rate."

Accomplishing that, however, will be far from simple.

This is a critical time for the district. To fuel his campaign to wrest control of the district from the elected school board, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has hammered district leaders on dropout rates. He frequently cites several recent studies finding that about half of L.A. Unified's students do not graduate on time to back his claim that the district has a 50% dropout rate. District officials, using state-mandated calculations, peg the number at 24% but acknowledge the figure is troubling.

The debate, in part, has pressured Supt. Roy Romer and his senior administrators to refocus attention on entrenched problems plaguing many of the district's high schools. For the first several years of his tenure, Romer had emphasized an overhaul of curriculum at elementary grades.

Duardo is targeting the middle and high schools in the district that have dropout rates higher than the state average of 12.6%. She and district staff are interviewing applicants for about 80 jobs as "diploma project coordinators." They will be assigned to struggling schools to improve intervention programs for at-risk students and increase efforts to bring dropouts back into the classroom.

"I wish there had been somebody who would have talked to me before I left," she said. "I wish someone would have explained what school is about. I might have listened."

Duardo said the district has to improve its programs for "recovered dropouts" -- teenagers who are persuaded to return after months or years -- making them more flexible and tailored to the students' specific needs.

"When you pull a kid back in, you can't just dump him into the program they were in before. No one wants to come back to fail."

The district's 16 high schools with the highest dropout rates will get further attention. Taken together, Duardo said, these low-performing schools, clustered largely in South Los Angeles, account for about half of the district's dropouts each year. Of the group, Locke High has the biggest problem, with one of every two students dropping out. The schools will receive additional staffers to help track down students who have left and will add frequent training sessions for counselors, teachers and administrators.

"We've got to start with these schools," Duardo said. "It's no surprise they have the highest rates. They're in parts of the city with the highest poverty rates, highest transiency, highest violence."

All told, Duardo estimated that the new initiatives would cost about $9 million. They are part of a larger effort by the superintendent to address some of the root causes of dropping out, including better preparing students for high school math and requiring remedial classes.

Duardo said she wants to implement quarterly meetings between counselors and parents of at-risk students, as well as conferences at the start of each year to teach parents about graduation and attendance requirements. Increasing parent awareness, she said, is vital in a district in which most students are from low-income families or from households where English is not the first language.

"You can do anything you want, but if you don't involve the parents and family, it's a waste of time," she said. "When you have parents who aren't educated, you often don't have a clue why you're going to school. I thought it was a place where I had to go for baby-sitting because both my parents had to work."

After dropping out of Hollywood High, Duardo eloped to Las Vegas and soon became pregnant. Her son, Bruce, was born with a serious spinal defect, and that pushed her to Los Angeles Community College.

"I had to if I was going to take care of him. I didn't know the difference between a neurologist and a urologist," she said.

It took Duardo 10 years at community college, while also working the night shift at a grocery store, to finish her high school requirements and first two years of college. She then transferred to UCLA, where she went on to earn a master's degree in social work.

Her experience as a dropout and her work in the district made her an obvious choice for the job, district officials said.

"Many students drop out of school because they feel disconnected or feel they have fallen too far behind to ever catch up," said Michelle King, an assistant district superintendent. "Debra understands the reality of what these students are experiencing."

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