Parents Scarce at Dropout Forum

Times Staff Writers

One after another, high school dropouts said recently that they gave up in part because they felt no personal connection to their school, Birmingham High in Van Nuys.

When Principal Marsha Coates announced plans Wednesday evening to strengthen the bonds that tie students and their families to the school, she didn't have to go far to illustrate the problem. Only about a dozen parents turned out for a meeting called to discuss the school's plans to significantly reshape itself.

Following a model that all Los Angeles Unified School District high schools are supposed to adopt, Birmingham intends to break itself into groups of smaller academies designed to foster a more intimate atmosphere at the huge campus, which has an enrollment of 3,700.

The "small learning communities" will have 400 to 500 students and a dedicated faculty of 15 to 20 teachers, whose classes will be relocated, if necessary, to be near one other, Coates said. The idea is to create small communities where students and teachers know each other — and where, she said, parents will also be welcome.

"I really appreciate you being here," she told the scattering of parents in a mostly empty multipurpose room, "but you can see the challenge we're up against."

Teachers and school staff members outnumbered parents at the meeting by at least 2 to 1.

Coates, who stressed that parent participation is a key to the success of any school, said she had sent fliers home to all parents, had used automated messages to telephone every student's home and had sent e-mails to those parents who had provided the school with addresses.

"This is a huge school," said Wera Savage, an attendee who has a 10th-grade son at Birmingham. Savage said she was constantly disappointed by the turnout of parents at school events.

Still, Savage noted that she found out about the meeting only when she rummaged through her son's school papers and discovered the flier that he was supposed to have given her.

Coates said she called the meeting in response to a series of recent articles in The Times that documented Birmingham's Class of 2005. The school was chosen because it is, by a variety of measures, a fairly typical Los Angeles school.

Of nearly 1,200 students who began ninth grade at Birmingham, only 422 graduated from the school four years later. Roughly 100 others graduated from other schools.

"There was a lot of truth to those articles," said Coates, who added that school officials "found it very interesting and very humbling and very sad at times."

She said the articles gave the school an added incentive to improve.

"We know that if we do what we've always done, we'll get what we've always got," Coates said.

In addition to moving aggressively to create the small learning communities by next fall, Coates told parents about special tutoring and "boot camp" programs for at-risk students — and about a new algebra class for parents, so they can help their children with homework.

She said the academies would be built around the model established by Birmingham's journalism magnet, whose students tend to do better academically than their peers.

Among the academies being considered are liberal studies, health and wellness, law and order, and business and technology. An expansion of the existing performing arts and media academy is also being considered.

In addition, there will be a separate ninth-grade program, in an acknowledgment that freshmen who get off on the wrong foot are at grave risk of dropping out.

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