Back to Basics: Why Does High School Fail So Many?

Birmingham High School dropout Elias Fuentes spends an idle moment in the parking lot of a Van Nuys restaurant.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Times Staff Writer

On a September day 4 1/2 years ago, nearly 1,100 ninth-graders — a little giddy, a little scared — arrived at Birmingham High School in Van Nuys. They were fifth-generation Americans and new arrivals, straight arrows and gangbangers, scholars and class clowns.

On a radiant evening last June, 521 billowing figures in royal blue robes and yellow-tasseled mortarboards walked proudly across Birmingham’s football field, practically floating on a carpet of whoops and shouts and blaring air horns, to accept their diplomas.

It doesn’t take a valedictorian to do the math: Somewhere along the way, Birmingham High lost more than half of the students who should have graduated.

What happened to the Class of 2005?

It is a crucial question, not just for Birmingham but for all American schools.

High school dropouts lead much harder lives, earn far less money and demand vastly more public assistance than their peers who graduate.

To understand why students leave high school and what they do next, six Times reporters and two photographers spent eight months studying Birmingham — by most measures a typical Los Angeles high school — and interviewing hundreds of former students and their parents, teachers, friends and siblings.

These students failed high school and high school failed them. Yet most haven’t given up on education.

The most likely place to find someone who had left Birmingham turned out to be in another school. More than 350 members of the Class of 2005 left to study elsewhere — about half at other traditional high schools and about half at alternatives like vocational school or independent study.

Those who transferred to traditional schools were more likely than not to graduate on time. But of those who went to alternative schools, fewer than one in three received a diploma or its equivalent.

The more students transferred, the less likely they were to graduate — an ominous development in a district in which one-quarter of the students change schools annually. Of 18 students who attended three or more schools, only one graduated.

For students at Birmingham, the act of dropping out was generally the last twist in a long downward spiral. Sometimes it began as early as elementary school. Year after year, students were allowed to fail upward, promoted despite a trail of Ds and Fs.

“Here you can get straight Fs,” said Barbara Mezo, a teacher at Mulholland Middle School, which sends students to Birmingham, “and the best they can do is keep you out of eighth-grade graduation ceremony.”

Then came high school, where credits were granted only for passing grades. Failing students found themselves on a treadmill, never reaching their goal of 230 credits for graduation. And with an increased focus on improving student performance, schools have little incentive to keep those who fail.

By the time he turned 18, Elias Fuentes had just 95 credits — enough to place him in 10th grade, next to 15- and 16-year-olds. Birmingham officials “just told me I have to leave,” he said. “They said, ‘The best thing you can do is enroll in an independent school so you can work at your own pace.’ ”

Instead, he went to work at a Sears store in Burbank, unloading televisions, DVD players and refrigerators for $7.70 an hour.

About two weeks before Birmingham’s graduation, Fuentes agonized over what to tell his extended family. “They’re kind of expecting an invitation to graduation,” he said. “I have to tell them soon, my uncles and aunts…. It’s not that I want to hide it. It’s just that it’s hard to tell somebody who had so much confidence in me that I messed up.”

For many students, frustration over failure was compounded by personal problems — pregnancies, financial pressure to work, drugs, brushes with the law. Parents became ill or died, sometimes violently. One girl lost her boyfriend when he was shot seven times in the chest. There was often pressure from friends who were also failing.

Many began cutting classes and were surprised to find that there were few, if any, consequences. Soon, some were racking up 30 or 40 — even 60 — absences in a 90-day semester.

“I ditched for two months straight; it was the thing to do at the time,” recalled Nicole Burns, who left Birmingham before her senior year and eventually graduated from a continuation school in Texas. “They never notified my parents that I was ditching. They never called and said I was absent.” Other students told similar tales, although some said the school did make an effort to reach their parents.

Some truants hung out with friends, watching TV and smoking pot. Others remained on campus, lurking in the halls, avoiding prying adults.

“We have 20, 30 kids or so who are constantly out of class,” said Marsha Coates, who became Birmingham’s principal in September. “They’re on campus, they’re not dropouts and they haven’t disappeared…. They just roam.”

When students are caught, she said, they receive $250 tickets that require them to appear in court with a parent. About 200 such tickets were given out last school year.

“And they still roam,” she said in exasperation.

Erick Vindel said he gave up on Birmingham after receiving three or four of the tickets in his junior year. “It got too complicated,” he said.

The school has instituted a new system of taking attendance each period, rather than just once a day, and is developing a new disciplinary system to punish truants. Since the attendance system went into effect Nov. 6, students have skipped more than 2,000 classes.

Ultimately, behind in credits, beleaguered by problems that would stagger many adults, some students reached a point at which staying in school — at least in a traditional school — made no sense. “What was I doing there if I wasn’t going to graduate on time?” wondered Ruben Vazquez, 18, who left Birmingham in what should have been his senior year.

The school typically has made little effort to keep such students. It has few resources to spend on them and is often happy to be rid of the ones considered troublemakers.

“Why do we have to jump through hoops for kids with 40 absences?” Dean Matt Mowry asked. “We should be able to say, ‘You have to go.’ ”


Statistics Versus Reality

The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, in conjunction with UCLA, produced a controversial report last spring saying that official dropout statistics in California’s largest school districts were shockingly out of sync with reality. The researchers found that only 48% of the L.A. Unified students who started ninth grade in 1999 graduated four years later. The district claims a graduation rate of 66%.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who wants to take over the school district, jumped on the study to assert that half of the students in L.A. Unified were dropping out.

School district officials said that was wrong, since the UCLA numbers included as dropouts students who had left to continue their education elsewhere. They put the dropout rate for 2003-04 at 33%.

One of the problems with trying to understand the dropout problem is that experts can’t even agree on the definition of a dropout: Should it include, for instance, a student who quits school but continues in home study that is unlikely to lead to graduation?

The debate can be seen in microcosm at Birmingham High. UCLA calculated the graduation rate at Birmingham at 50%. L.A. Unified, using federal formulas, puts it at nearly 80%, with just 3.5% classified as dropouts.

School officials make no pretense of defending that dropout figure. Schools Supt. Roy Romer was flabbergasted when he heard it. “Whoa! Wait a minute!” he said. “Can you tell me that number again?”

But they also believe the dropout rate is not as high as UCLA’s figures imply.

The Times determined that at least 53% of the students who began at Birmingham in ninth grade graduated four years later, many from other schools.

At least 9% more were continuing their education, most of them hoping to graduate eventually. At least 12% were not in school of any kind. The rest couldn’t be found, although extensive inquiries at area schools suggested most were not active students.

It would be easy to see Birmingham as just another bad public school. But for many students, it’s not.

It has a dedicated core of teachers and offers a variety of honors and Advanced Placement classes. Its journalism magnet program draws many high-achieving students.

Birmingham sent more than 60 members of the Class of 2005 to the University of California, and three-quarters of its graduates planned to pursue higher education.

Motivated students find their way. But sometimes it takes more. Danny Rangel said he was on the road to dropping out when he was admitted to Birmingham’s journalism magnet. Rangel, from Pacoima, wound up with a scholarship to Dartmouth College.

What set him apart from his childhood friends, many of whom dropped out? Like most successful students, Rangel credited both a demanding parent and inspiring teachers — especially one, Kevin Kelly, who told him to aim high when he applied to college.

Rangel said his mother, a Salvadoran immigrant, never made it past second grade but made school a top priority for her children. “She’s forceful when it comes to that subject,” he said.

Not all students get that kind of attention. “I think the majority” of parents are “just too busy keeping food on the table,” said Coates, the Birmingham principal. And with 35 or 40 students in many classes, teachers confront a formidable problem: If half their students are at risk of failing, how many can they possibly save?

Coates hopes that one answer will be the transition to “small learning communities” — theme-based schools within schools. She also has plans to get parents more involved.

Perhaps Birmingham’s greatest accomplishment is that, by some measures, it has narrowed the “achievement gap” between rich and poor, white and nonwhite, that bedevils most American schools. In the last six years, standardized test scores for Latino and African American students at the school have improved substantially. The scores of white students have also risen, but more modestly.

According to Times research, poor students in the Class of 2005 were just as likely as more affluent students to graduate from Birmingham, and African American and Latino students were slightly more likely than whites to get diplomas.

That is significant, especially given how much Birmingham has changed over the last half century.

Opened in 1953 on the site of a former military hospital, the school was designed to accommodate the epic migration of young families, most of them white, to the San Fernando Valley in the years after World War II.

Graduates have included junk bond pioneer and philanthropist Michael Milken, actress Sally Field, former Disney President Michael Ovitz and slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. But over the last couple of decades, Birmingham’s demographics have shifted dramatically.

The most common last name at Birmingham now is Garcia, closely followed by Hernandez and Martinez. Two-thirds of the student body is Latino; fewer than one in six students is non-Hispanic white. Many students are immigrants or the children of immigrants; roughly one-third of the students are learning English as a second language.

Until recently, the school was also forced to absorb students bused in from elsewhere in the city. The Class of 2005 included 102 students who were squeezed out of overcrowded Belmont High School near downtown.

The school’s adjustment to these changes hasn’t been easy. But academic standards have not suffered; if anything, a Birmingham diploma today is more difficult to obtain than it was a generation ago.

Even some of those who left the school are wistful about what they gave up.

“I wish I would have finished high school in Birmingham,” said Leonardo Portillo, who left after ninth grade and now works in construction, his dream of a diploma receding. He attended five other schools before dropping out and says of Birmingham: “It was the only school I was comfortable in.”

Still, with nearly 4,000 students, Birmingham is a big, crowded, at times violent place. “It’s a huge school with people who look so grown up,” said Debora Elias, who felt so uncomfortable that she left for another school in her sophomore year.

Said Doris Lasiter, principal until last summer: “I think part of it is being overwhelmed and not being able to connect and not feeling … that maybe there’s a teacher who really cares about what they’re doing.”

Ethnic tensions turned off some students. Problems arose between the majority Latino population and a much smaller group of Armenian students and between Latinos and African Americans. Privately, teachers and administrators readily admit that the staff includes instructors who are either burned out or never caught fire.

All of which means that some students — in fact, many students — get lost.

That’s what happened to Mayra Mendez. At least, that’s part of her story.

Raised by a single mother from Mexico who didn’t finish middle school, Mayra had lived in at least half a dozen cities by the time she started kindergarten, and she bounced from school to school before settling in at Noble Elementary in North Hills. She liked school and was eventually classified as gifted.

But like so many students, she began to founder in middle school. At Mulholland, she said, her social life began to eclipse academics. “I had some friends who I knew were a bad influence,” she said. Mayra began having disciplinary problems.

Ninth grade felt like a fresh start. In her classes at Birmingham, “I thought, ‘Oh, I know this. I could do this.’ ”

But soon she began getting into fights. She cut class. She felt rebellious. “I wanted to push, to see how far I could go,” she said. “And no one ever disciplined me. I blame myself at times. But at other times, I think, ‘Well, it is their job. They are getting paid. It’s not just my fault.’ ”

At the end of her first semester, she had failed every class. She didn’t bother to go back.

“I didn’t have anyone tell me to stay in school, and people were just encouraging me to get out as soon as possible,” she said. Four years later, she couldn’t recall if she’d ever spoken to a counselor. Only one adult had seemed to care, she said — an English teacher, Joe Rosenthal.

Rosenthal, who sees around 200 students a day, instantly remembered Mayra.

“This girl, Mayra Mendez, was very intelligent,” he said. “She was very aggressive. I told her she should be a lawyer.”

There was just one problem: She rarely did her work.

“When she did,” he said, “it was always really good.”

Mayra, now 20, eventually enrolled in the federal Job Corps program and earned her general educational development degree. She got a job conducting telephone surveys. She still wants to go to college, with one goal in mind.

She’d like to be a lawyer.

Debate has long raged in education circles over who’s to blame for students failing high school. Is it the school or the student? The educational system or the society? The parents or the culture?

Teachers, the adults with the closest view of this slow-motion disaster, tend to have the most nuanced view. Even the best of them often express frustration and disappointment in their inability to reach failing students.

Paula Sargent teaches senior English composition at Birmingham and takes pains to stimulate her students.

Students adore Sargent, a former professional singer who appeared on the front page of this newspaper in 1968, when her singing troupe was ambushed in Vietnam en route to a performance for U.S. troops; two musicians died, and Sargent suffered back and leg wounds that afflict her still.

“Best teacher in the world,” one boy said as he shuffled into her class. “I love you, Ms. Sargent,” another exclaimed.

But Sargent, a wisecracking combination of mother hen and free-spirited aunt, is discouraged.

“There’s no love of learning,” she said. “If that’s not there from the get-go” — she scanned the students slouching at their desks, the ones who were there on time — “then we have what we have.”

Teachers complain that students come to school with a sense of entitlement — “seat time” alone, they believe, should be enough for a passing grade. Teachers also say they believe that popular culture demeans education.

But teachers also are among the first to admit that, for many students, the traditional American high school is broken. They can’t handle its academic rigor and they chafe at its restrictions.

The large, comprehensive high school — the place where most Americans learned to calculate pi and compete for prom dates — is a 20th century invention that managed to both mirror and feed a giant industrial economy.

Throughout its history, it has been at the center of a tug of war between advocates of rigorous academic standards and those who believed in more of a smorgasbord approach to education.

During the 1950s, the buffet approach was ascendant: Schools tried to offer something for everyone, from Latin and calculus for the college-bound to vocational education and home economics for those considered unlikely or unable to continue their education.

But eventually, the tracking system went the way of bobby sox and bomb shelters.

Today, the operating philosophy is that every student should be prepared for college, and high schools have little room for courses that don’t further that goal.

At the same time, especially in large cities, high schools have become huge, with student populations that are often double the number for which the school was planned. It is not uncommon to see 40 students in a class. Counselors have caseloads of 600 students. There is little glue holding it all together.

The result is a large segment of students who struggle anonymously until, dispirited, they give up.

School district officials told The Times late last week that they will unveil a comprehensive plan this week to attack the dropout problem. The district will try to help struggling middle school students prepare for high school and will offer an array of options to reclaim dropouts, said Robert Collins, chief instructional officer for the district’s secondary schools.

California Education Secretary Alan Bersin said in a recent interview that the traditional high school model still works in many suburban areas. But, he said, it “is a structure that has not been successful in many urban areas and rural areas.”

“Many educators,” he added, “believe it is time for a change.”


Tracking Missing Kids

Sandy Olson has been Birmingham High’s last line of defense against dropouts. He has been the school’s pupil services and attendance counselor, a cross between an advisor and an old-fashioned truant officer.

His status at Birmingham suggests something about the importance that the school — and the district — historically placed on tracking down dropouts. The district gives schools no money to hire pupil services counselors, and most schools don’t have one. Olson, who began working as a teacher in 1956, is retired and now works only one day a week.

He does not speak Spanish, limiting his ability to communicate with many parents or their former neighbors.

A typical workday: Olson tries calling the parents of absent students, often to find that their phone has been disconnected, with no forwarding number, or that the number they gave the school was wrong. He might get far enough to leave a voicemail message; it is rare that he gets a return call.

He might drive to the address listed in a student’s records only to find that the family moved and left no forwarding address. Or never lived there. Neighbors are typically less than helpful, especially when the student’s parents are illegal immigrants.

“People are getting evicted constantly, they’re moving here, they’re moving there,” Olson said. Often, they are trying to stay a step ahead of bill collectors and don’t want to be found. “There’s so much falsification,” he said.

Olson is being replaced next month with a full-time bilingual pupil services counselor.

Collins said Birmingham’s remarkably low official dropout rate is a tribute to Olson’s work and that of other school officials.

“My assumption is that they have been very aggressive in accounting and documenting every kid who leaves that school,” Collins said.

But simply accounting for students who leave doesn’t tell the whole story. The drive to improve student achievement in American schools has created a perverse incentive for schools to push out struggling students, ideally without having to count them as dropouts.

These are the students who drag down standardized test scores, leading to penalties for their schools under school accountability measures that include the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Without them, test score averages rise. If a student can be counted as having left the country or as having transferred to an alternative educational program, there is no downside: Those students are not counted as dropouts.

“No school really wants to have these children, who bring their test scores down, who bring their attendance rates down,” said Debra Duardo, pupil services coordinator for one of LAUSD’s local districts. She didn’t deny that some schools fudge the way dropouts are reported to lower their rate; it happens, she said, “more often than what I think is appropriate or ethical.”

Although there is no direct evidence that anyone at Birmingham has intentionally falsified records to lower the dropout rate, The Times found that the school erroneously reported that some students had transferred to other schools, allowing Birmingham to classify them as transfers, not dropouts.

Devora Arauz and Marco Galen were listed as having transferred to Independence High School, a continuation school adjacent to Birmingham, but Principal Cynthia Gladstone said neither showed up. Marcos Gonzalez was reported to have checked out of Birmingham en route to Dorsey High in the Crenshaw district, but Dorsey has no record of him.

Birmingham records say Denisse Jacobo transferred to Pioneer High School in Provo, Utah, but Jacobo — who earned a diploma in independent study — said she hadn’t left Los Angeles and had no intention of moving to Utah.

Moreover, there is no Pioneer High School in Provo.

Benedick Gata was reported to have transferred to Houston High School in Austin, Texas. There is no Houston High School in or near Austin, and a relative said Benedick was still in the Los Angeles area.

The Times found several cases — Mayra Mendez and Elias Fuentes, to name two — in which students said they were encouraged to leave.

“I’m trying to save kids here,” Olson, the attendance counselor, said when asked about another student. “I can’t save this kid.”


‘Just What I Needed’

What seems most remarkable in conversations with dropouts is that nearly all of them yearn for an education — or at least for a diploma.

When Ray Villegas left Birmingham in March of his senior year, he was short on credits and tired of the pressure of classes and homework. His counselor suggested West Valley Occupational Center, a vocational school that also offers independent study. Villegas was skeptical, but he found that he loved the center’s informality.

On June 24, one day after Birmingham’s graduation, Ray and 65 other independent study students graduated in a modest outdoor ceremony at West Valley. They wore silky blue gowns, one of which covered a student’s very pregnant belly.

Ray’s teachers had picked him to speak. “I found this program — no, this school — to be just what I needed,” he said. “I cannot explain what drove me to work so arduously, but what I do know is that I’m thankful to be here today.”

But for every Ray Villegas there are plenty of other students for whom the alternative school is just another meandering path to failure. The success rates of such schools are difficult to gauge because the students are so transient — some leave and return three, four or five times.

“I never have a kid who makes a decision to drop out,” said Gladstone, the longtime principal at Independence. “They just drift away.”

Once they do, the evidence is overwhelming that their prospects for a good life — by practically any definition — decline.

There was a time, not so long ago, when it was possible for a dropout to get a job that could eventually lift him into the middle class. Those days are pretty much over. In 1964, a typical high school dropout earned 64 cents for every dollar earned by someone with a diploma. By 2004, it was 37 cents and dropping.

At a conference last fall at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York, some top educational researchers released their findings about the consequences of dropping out.

The researchers calculated that dropouts will cost the country hundreds of billions of dollars a year in lost income taxes and increased welfare and healthcare costs.

Dropouts will die, on average, nine years earlier than high school graduates.

Dropouts will commit far more crimes than high school graduates.

Economist Enrico Moretti of UC Berkeley estimated that if high school graduation rates were just 1% higher, there would be 100,000 fewer crimes in the United States annually, including 400 fewer murders, and that the savings would be $1.4 billion a year.

In an economy that increasingly relies on educated workers, “those who are not properly educated are going to fall by the wayside,” said Michael Rebell, director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College.

It is a fate that Svetlana Pogosyan is desperately trying to avoid.

Svetlana dropped out of Birmingham in her junior year. By then, school had become a cycle of failure and humiliation. Svetlana, a Russian immigrant, was growing awkwardly out of a difficult childhood. At school, she was unfashionable and unpopular and proud of it.

“High school was so overrated,” Svetlana said. “It was a fashion show, that’s it.”

She had started skipping class in her freshman year, visiting a hookah bar and smoking apple-flavored tobacco with her one close friend. Her parents worked long hours, her mother as an X-ray technician, her father as a floor-layer. Teachers didn’t encourage her.

She checked out that first year, trying a continuation school and home study, before returning to Birmingham. But she found that little had changed. If anything, the social scene had intensified. After one semester, she left and re-enrolled in home study.

Then, in what would have been her senior year, her father was diagnosed with lung cancer. She began taking care of him and her 4-year-old brother while her mother worked.

Finishing school became a distant worry.

Last June, her little brother graduated from preschool and proudly waved his diploma in his big sister’s face. A month later, Svetlana was called to her father’s bedside. She kissed his swollen forehead five times. He called her his “bunny” in Russian. Then he died.

Svetlana, 18, is now enrolled in West Valley Occupational Center, where she is studying to earn her GED degree. She plans to enroll in beauty school.

She has one more goal: to make sure her brother stays in school.

“I’m going to make him go to school,” she said. “It’s going to be my duty … to guide him.”




Here’s what happened to the 1,087 freshmen who entered Birmingham High in the fall of 2001:

Graduated: 582

From: Birmingham: 425*

Other traditional schools: 110

Nontraditional** schools: 47


Did not graduate: 224

Status unknown: 281


* In addition to these students, the graduating class included students who transferred to Birmingham

** Includes a variety of alternative programs, such as vocational schools, continuation schools and independent study programs that provide more personal instruction


The transfer students

Three hundred and fifty-eight students are known to have transferred from Birmingham. With each transfer, the chance of graduation grew slimmer.

Number of
other schoolsNumber ofPercent who
4 or more50

Sources: Los Angeles Unified School District, Times reporting

Data analysis by Sandra Poindexter


About This Series

Students drastically limit their prospects by dropping out of high school. To understand why so many do, six Times reporters and two photographers spent eight months studying Birmingham High School in Van Nuys. Today’s is the first of four stories on “The Vanishing Class.”

Monday: Algebra — a formula for failure.

Friday: Fast friends — 11 started; three finished.

Saturday: The dropout industry.


On the Web

A photo gallery, a video report, a discussion forum and other multimedia features are available at Use the Graduation Tracker to explore graduation rates and demographics for Los Angeles public high schools.



“Class of 2005,” a segment of the news magazine “California Connected” produced in partnership with The Times, will air at 8:30 p.m. Friday on KCET in Los Angeles and at varying times that night on other PBS stations. For a complete broadcast schedule, go to .


Contributing Writers

This story was reported by Times staff writers Nancy Cleeland, Erika

Hayasaki, Duke Helfand, Mitchell Landsberg, Jean Merl and Joel Rubin. Doug Smith and Sandra Poindexter performed data analysis.