Drop out? Not an option

Robert Moose, a former defensive lineman, teaches "moral reasoning" at Birmingham High School. The curriculum is based on a program used in prisons.
(Genaro Molina / LAT)
Times Staff Writer

Delmy Lagos stared in surprise as the student’s records glowed to life, white letters on a blue computer screen.

She was sitting behind her desk at Birmingham High School, in a spare, fluorescent-lit office the size of an elevator, and she was puzzled by what she saw.

Lagos is a counselor whose job is to find and help students who are at risk of dropping out. Tony Tacen, the student whose records were before her, didn’t fit the profile. He had passed all his classes, often with A’s or Bs. He was on track to graduate. Yet Tony had left Birmingham High at the end of 11th grade and had not returned in September.

Who was this kid, and what had happened to him?

Those questions might have lingered had Tony been a year or two older, a member of the Class of 2005 or ’06. Someone from Birmingham probably would have taken the first step, calling Tony’s home and leaving messages. Someone even might have driven to his apartment and left a note if no one answered the door.

It was what Lagos did next that helps explain why Birmingham High just might have a chance to make inroads on a dropout problem typical of many urban schools.

Lagos fought for Tony. She did it the way good teachers and counselors fight for students every day. But too often, nobody fights for kids like Tony — out of sight, out of mind and out of school.

In a series of four articles last January and February, The Times looked at the dropout problem at Birmingham, a school in the San Fernando Valley chosen not because it stood out as a failure, but because it was typical.

Many students thrived at Birmingham, which sent its share of students to good colleges — Cal State and UC campuses, even the Ivy League. But many others struggled, or gave up and quit.

According to the district, Birmingham had a dropout rate of 3.5%. But of 1,100 students who were freshmen in the fall of 2001, fewer than half walked across the football field in June 2005 to receive their diplomas. No one could say with certainty where most of the rest had gone.

The Times found that many, eager for a diploma but unable to manage the demands of a large, comprehensive high school, had transferred to other schools or to independent study programs.

Often, that was just a slow-motion way of dropping out.

Within days of The Times’ series, the Los Angeles Unified School District announced new measures to help keep students in school. Under a new principal, Marsha Coates, Birmingham embraced those initiatives and added others.

The changes allowed Coates to hire new people. Lagos was hired under a districtwide program that added one counselor to nearly every high school and put them in charge of the students considered most at risk.

Coates also hired an additional attendance clerk and a new pupil services counselor to track down truants and dropouts.

Coates reorganized the school to give its 3,000 students more of a connection to what can be a vast, anonymous institution.

She established a ninth-grade “academy” that would give extra attention to freshmen. She created “small learning communities” throughout the rest of the school, implementing a districtwide initiative designed to make huge high schools less impersonal and sort students according to their interests.

Birmingham instituted a “bridge program” that encourages incoming ninth-graders with weak math and English skills to take a remedial summer school program. It provided tutoring for those who were falling behind in algebra, a subject that trips up many students.

It is too early to say whether the new measures will succeed. Missindy Wilkins, the coordinator of the new ninth-grade academy, said it could be several years before there’s any significant payoff, and she worries that the district won’t have the patience to wait.

The goal of much of what is being done is to “build community,” Wilkins said. “That really takes time to unfold.”

There is, in fact, a powerful undertow pulling students out of school. Many are affected by overwhelming social and cultural problems: gang life, dysfunctional families, pressure to work, poor English skills, a PlayStation culture that looks down on academic achievement.

No one expects Birmingham to hang on to every student — not by itself. The question, still unanswered, is whether the school can have any significant effect at all on the number of dropouts. At this point, Birmingham appears to have steered some students from the dropout path — at least for now.

The school is taking two broad approaches. One is to pull dropouts like Tony back into school or find suitable alternatives for them. The other is to try to keep struggling students from leaving school.

Among the more obvious lessons from these early efforts is that wayward students are reclaimed one at a time, with lots of individual attention; that it takes extraordinary passion and dedication on the part of teachers and counselors; and that high schools can’t, as a rule, change the environment in which students live — but neither can they ignore it.

‘The right decision’

When she finally got in touch with Tony’s uncle and guardian, Delmy Lagos was told that the boy had dropped out to work full time in construction. His family at home in Guatemala needed the money. Tony had been sent to the U.S. three years before to work, not attend school. Now It was time for him to meet his responsibilities.

That explanation might have satisfied some counselors, but Lagos was different. Raised in L.A. by a single mother, a Honduran immigrant who scraped by on factory work, Lagos had been a middle school dropout. When she left in the eighth grade, nobody tried to talk her into returning, and things didn’t get better when she got pregnant the next year.

“I thought about how we grew up — a one-bedroom apartment, five people…. I thought, ‘Wow, I don’t want to live like this with my children.’ ”

She enrolled at McCalister High School for pregnant girls. Then, after her daughter was born, she transferred to Will Rogers Continuation School. From there, Valley College and then Cal State Northridge, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Along the way, her mother tried to talk her into leaving school. Why wasn’t she working or at home with her child?

And so when Tony’s uncle said it was time for Tony to forget about school, Lagos spoke with the passion of someone who had been there.

“I told him how much potential [Tony] had and how much more he could help his grandma if he finished school,” she said. The uncle was skeptical, but Lagos kept arguing. Finally, the uncle gave in.

She had to convince Tony too. He was reluctant to cut his work hours and concerned that he would be letting his grandmother down. Lagos told him that he would be worth more to his family with an education.

“I’m grateful to her,” Tony said a few weeks later, happily back in school and still working nights and weekends in construction. “I’m grateful to God too. They helped me make a hard decision, and I think it was the right decision.”

An unusual pairing

Robert Moose’s classroom was packed — roughly 40 students crammed into a space designed for about half that. Students filled the available seats, scrunched thigh-to-thigh on tabletops. They were there because they were academic failures, some of the worst students Birmingham High had to offer — potential dropouts, every one.

But they were listening quietly and intently to Moose, a heavily tattooed former defensive lineman whose strength lies in the fact that he was a lot like these kids at their age. Try as they might, they can’t shock him, and they certainly can’t intimidate him.

His subject matter is a rarity in public schools: “moral reasoning.” His curriculum is based on a program called “Social Responsibility Training,” which was developed for use in prisons. Early research suggests it can have a profound effect on at-risk high schoolers.

On this day, Moose was talking to the students about “false beliefs.”

“You may believe that if you have a basketball filled with air and you jump off a five-story building, it will save you.” He stared at a boy. “You gonna jump?”

The kid shook his head.

“That belief,” Moose continued in a booming voice, “is not intertwined with reality. You guys have a lot of false beliefs. You believe that you can sit for four years in a classroom, do nothing, say nothing, and at the end you’ll graduate and get a job and everything will be OK….That is a false belief.”

Moose, who also serves as Birmingham’s wrestling coach, is one half of a team that represents the school’s boldest and most unusual effort to keep students in school. At the beginning of the year, teachers and administrators identified 20 of the ninth-graders who were considered most likely to fail. They were taken out of their regular classes and assigned to teacher Rebecca Loiacono, with whom they spend four of their six class periods each day. The other two are spent with Moose: physical education and moral reasoning.

Loiacono and Moose are classic good cop-bad cop. Where Loiacono is nurturing, Moose is confrontational. Where Loiacono is soft, Moose is hard. She uses rewards to motivate students. He uses detention.

As is often the case in such partnerships, the differences are deliberately exaggerated. In fact, Moose and Loiacono are focused on the same result.

The “contained class” they teach is based on the idea that most decisions to drop out of school have their origins in ninth grade — the first year that student failure has actual consequences. A recent study of New York City schools confirmed what educators have been saying for years: Students who make it through ninth grade on time are overwhelmingly likely to graduate, but those who fail their freshman year are at high risk of dropping out.

High school can be a rude awakening for students who often arrive after failing their way through middle school. Many give up within weeks. It took Pedro Salazar only until October, one month into ninth grade, to decide that his best bet was continuation school.

“In middle school, you’re used to just failing in the class and they pass you on,” said Pedro. “Here, if you fail, you don’t get the credits and you don’t move on.”

Joanna Orozco said she “messed up in middle school … and then I got here and I messed up again.”

“I was about to give up,” she said. “I was scared…. If I would have failed, and flunked ninth grade, it would have been really hard to get those credits back.”

Both Joanna and Pedro wound up in the Loiacono/Moose class. Both are doing much better and say their attitude about school has changed.

Before, “I felt like I was the only one who didn’t understand, so I got really shy,” Joanna said. “Now, I don’t feel stupid. I feel regular…. I know that I’m going to thank these teachers, because I want to make something of my life.”

Pedro said it had begun to occur to him “that I’m going to actually pass. That I’ll graduate.”

Moose and Loiacono say those aren’t the only examples. Of 25 students currently enrolled in the program, eight were passing all their classes at the 10-week mark and four others had only one failing grade among their six classes. Considering that several students came to Birmingham with a 0.0 grade-point average, that is major progress.

Even many of those still struggling are focusing in class and doing homework for the first time in their lives.

David Reyes, who has emerged as a leader in Loiacono’s class, said he still is having a tough time in math. “I missed four years of math because I never paid attention,” he said.

There are indications that other new programs are having an effect as well. Of 180 incoming ninth-graders who completed the summer bridge program, 93% had perfect attendance records as of late October. Attendance may not be a guarantor of success in school, but it is a prerequisite.

“The bridge program is, I think, the best thing the district has done in years to deal with the graduation problem,” said Wilkins, the ninth-grade coordinator. Not only do students make up lost ground in math and English, they earn 10 credits that provide a cushion against any later failures. “It’s like a savings account,” Wilkins said.

None of this is to suggest that all of Birmingham’s problems have been fixed.

The school suffered a setback this fall when it lost $250,000 in federal Title I funds that had been used to reduce class size, Coates, the principal, said. The school was placed in a lower bracket for federal aid because of a small reduction in the percentage of students qualifying for subsidized meals, she said.

Efforts to get parents more involved at Birmingham have had lackluster results, Coates said. High-performing schools often cite an active parent body as a key to success.

“The parent involvement here is not great,” she said.

Veteran teachers at the school are willing to give the new programs a try but are skeptical, said teachers union representative Deborah Faerber.

Having seen any number of short-lived reforms in L.A. Unified, “I think it’s hard to be a veteran teacher and not have a little bit of skepticism,” she said. Real, deep-seated reform, she added, would require smaller class sizes, something the district won’t — and can’t — pay for.

“Everyone here sincerely wants to make things succeed,” said Faerber, who teaches French. “When you’ve got a 50% dropout rate, my God, yes — try something!”




Back story

“The Vanishing Class,” a four-part series that ran in The Times from Jan. 29 to Feb. 4, examined the issue of high school dropouts through the experiences of one high school class, the Birmingham High Class of 2005. About 1,100 students had begun ninth grade at Birmingham, a typical Los Angeles school in the San Fernando Valley. When it came time to graduate four years later, only 551 seniors were in the procession across the school’s football field. The Times was able to account for several hundred of the missing; their stories ranged widely, but many had left because they were unprepared for high school and felt lost on a large, anonymous campus. Algebra was an especially tough hurdle: In one spring semester, more Birmingham freshmen failed Algebra 1 than passed. The series also profiled a tight-knit group of boys who called themselves “The Outsiders.” Eleven had begun as freshmen at Birmingham, but only three made it to graduation. And The Times examined the troubling record of two charter school operations that profited from the exodus of students from Birmingham, many of whom enrolled in the schools’ independent study programs but few of whom graduated.

Source: Times reporting