For dropouts, a way to drop back in

The Boyle Heights Technology Youth Center is one of 13 centers in Los Angeles offering education and job programs to high school dropouts.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The corner of 4th and Gless streets in East Los Angeles, once a center of prostitution and drugs, now houses a place of soaring dreams.

Inside the gleaming Boyle Heights Technology Youth Center, a classroom of young people battered by hard luck or bad choices is filled with quiet, focused energy.

Marcos Avila, a 19-year-old who was kicked out of high school for fighting, is learning to compare and contrast two essays. Vincent Guzman, 18, who left school after his brother was killed in a drive-by shooting, is puzzling over two-step algebraic problems.


Until recently, the two men were part of a growing epidemic of young people who have dropped out of school, can’t find steady work and are disconnected from any path to better lives. According to a study released Monday, the number of Californians ages 16 to 24 who neither work nor attend school has grown to 868,000, an increase of 35% since 2000.

The study by two children’s advocacy organizations, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Children Now, found that the recession had boosted the rates of these young people — particularly in African American, Latino and low-income communities. Many of them were caught in a squeeze between fewer jobs and a demand for higher skills, the report said.

Among African Americans, 45% of young people don’t work or attend school; the figure is 39% for Latinos, 28% for whites and 26% for Asians. Young people whose families earn less than $20,000 a year are three times more likely to be out of work or school than those in higher-income families.

“These numbers are eye-opening and unacceptable,” said Ted Lempert, president of Children Now, an Oakland-based nonpartisan policy and advocacy organization. “California’s next generation is getting off on the wrong start and it’s a real precarious situation for their future and ours.”

The report calls for more funding for young people, saying federal money is primarily aimed at adult employment programs. The report also promotes a shift from piecemeal programs to a comprehensive effort to get young people back on track through integrated education, training and support services across city, county and school systems. Strong relationships with caring adults are also key, the report said.

That’s exactly the approach the city is taking in its new program in Boyle Heights and elsewhere, said Robert Sainz, assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Community Development Department.


The $13-million federally funded program features an unusual partnership between the city and Los Angeles Unified School District. The city has long offered job training programs for dropouts, commissioning a study seven years ago that found nearly 20% of 492,000 Los Angeles residents ages 16 to 24 had left school and weren’t working. A follow-up study in 2009 found the problem had not diminished.

“You had basically a small city of people neither at school or work,” Sainz said. “When you have a group not progressing socially or academically, you’re not going to be developing a work pool of the future.”

The new program expects to reach 10,000 young people in a year.

As national attention honed in on the dropout problem, Sainz and his team visited several cities in search of effective programs and decided to shift the majority of their federal workforce development money to this group. But a key issue was trying to find the dropouts, since their names, addresses and phone numbers are confidential school records.

That’s when the city and Los Angeles Unified agreed to team up and share the $120,000 annual cost of placing a school counselor in each of the city’s 13 youth centers that are hosting the program. With access to school records, the pupil services and attendance counselors can hunt down dropouts and give them an academic assessment on how many credits they need to earn a high school diploma or equivalent credential known as a GED.

That’s how Maria Ocampo, 18, ended up at the Boyle Heights tech center. The bright, articulate student hails from a Mexican immigrant family of teachers and nurses, but dropped out of Roosevelt High School in May to take care of her ill mother.

In August, Los Angeles Unified counselor Sara Puma tracked her down — just in time to join the program’s first class in September. A strength of the program, students said, is the supportive staff, including a social worker who gives them a mental health assessment and case workers who keep them on track.


Case worker Marie Landeros, for instance, found one young charge who missed class and sternly told him that sleeping in “isn’t going to work for me” because the center is paying for his education; he now attends and calls if he’s going to be late.

Landeros, who grew up in Boyle Heights, keeps her door open and candy jar filled to develop the trusting relationships that she and others say are important to their success with students.

Ocampo is completing course work for her English composition class and expects to earn her diploma in June after finishing health, algebra and history classes. She said it was easier to focus at the center, where the curriculum is self-paced and there is no peer pressure to ditch class.

But academics are not the program’s only benefit. The center also helps students find internships and jobs. Ocampo, for instance, found an internship with the California Democratic Party, where she worked on the successful Proposition 30 school tax initiative. Along the way she met a bevy of elected officials, including former President Clinton, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Los Angeles school board President Monica Garcia.

The experience has given her a new dream: attend Mills College in Oakland and eventually run for elective office.

“This program helps you achieve what you really want,” she said.

Avila, who was kicked out of two high schools and left a third, has traded aimless days of video games, basketball and TV for a path to a diploma and what he hopes will be a career as a video game designer. He said his brother told him about the program after hearing about it in a firefighting training class.


He said he was known for his “fists of fury” in high school, but not anymore. “I’ve cooled down and realize what’s more important is school,” he said.

Guzman hopes to earn his GED and dreams of feeding his passion for cars as a Mercedes-Benz technician.

Other former dropouts say they want to become electricians, filmmakers, artists.

“A lot of people look at dropout kids as throwaways, but we have the fundamental belief that they can succeed,” Sainz said.