Editorial From the Los Angeles Times
July 19, 2008 - It wasn't true, what the critics said about half the students in Los Angeles Unified School District dropping out. One in three do. The first state database to count dropouts in a more realistic way revealed this week that although the district's numbers weren't as bad as feared, neither were they statistics to inspire a happy dance.
L.A. Unified is finally taking meaningful measures to keep kids in school, a formidable task. But how did we get to this place? By ignoring our dropouts with great thoroughness for many years and even by covering up their existence. If researchers questioned the high numbers of youngsters leaving inner-city schools, district administrators would respond that this mostly reflected families who had moved away.
The district does in fact have an alarmingly high mobility rate -- each year, 27% of its students move -- but until this week there was no regular system in place to track where the missing had gone. It didn't help that both the state and federal departments of education paid most of their attention to test scores and very little to dropout rates. In fact, a school could look better under the No Child Left Behind Act by having its low achievers leave.
As a result, dropout rates at some Los Angeles schools don't just reach half, they go beyond. Nearly 60% of the students at Jefferson High leave without diplomas. But L.A. Unified is hardly the only district in the county where dropout rates exceed the statewide number of 24.2%. The new database lists Inglewood Unified as having a 43.9% dropout rate, Compton Unified at 43.3% and Lynwood Unified at a whopping 49.5%.
Throughout California, black and Latino youngsters have higher dropout rates, and that's reflected in L.A. Unified as well, where 35.4% of Latinos and 40.2% of African Americans fail to earn diplomas. Numbers like that lead to such false excuses as, "Well, what can you expect from inner-city schools? Those poor, minority kids just can't or won't do the work."
Then what to make of Santa Ana Unified, where 92% of the students are Latino, many of them from impoverished families, yet the dropout rate is 9.1%? It's worth noting that, in L.A. Unified, the dropout rate for white students is more than twice that high.
There's no big mystery to why kids drop out. They fall behind in their studies to the point where catching up seems hopeless. They feel stupid, and even dropping out seems better than being reminded daily of their stupidity. Their schools are chaotic, even dangerous. They fall into a habit of truancy that no one helps them break. They are lured by gangs or are overwhelmed by financial and personal problems.
Under Supt. David L. Brewer, Los Angeles schools had begun contacting apparent dropouts, trying to coax them back into the classroom. Now, Senior Deputy Supt. Ramon C. Cortines is mapping a more comprehensive intervention. Schools would receive financial incentives for raising attendance -- something the district could afford because it gets more money from the state for each day students are in class. By the end of the first grading period, ninth-grade teachers would have to report on failing students and provide an immediate remediation plan. Schools themselves would get regular report cards based not only on their test scores but on such factors as whether students feel safe.
Most important, the state each year will reveal and refine the dropout data. Just as the No Child Left Behind Act led to major reforms in urban education, so should putting these bleak numbers before the public eye.