DROPOUT CRISIS IN L.A. SITUATION MUCH WORSE THAN REPORTED, HARVARD STUDY SHOWS.
More than half of Los Angeles Unified School District students failed to finish high school in a recent four-year period - nearly double the dropout rate reported to the state, according to a Harvard University Civil Rights Project study released Wednesday.
A statewide reporting discrepancy, which is more pronounced in Los Angeles, raises red flags that California's current dropout-accounting formula is masking a crisis in public schools, particularly for Latino and African-American students, educators said.
``We have incredibly lax accountability in California, and it borders on negligence,'' said Daniel Losen, a policy research associate with The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. ``They're doing a miserable job in addressing their graduation-rate crisis.''
The state has reported a graduation rate of 87 percent, but the Harvard researchers found an overall graduation rate of 71 percent for 2002. Graduation rates for non-Asian minority students were significantly lower, with a 57 percent rate for blacks, 60 percent for Latinos and 52 percent for American Indians. For minority males, the figures were even worse: 50 percent for blacks, 54 percent for Latinos and 46 percent for American Indians.
In the LAUSD, just 39 percent of Latino students and 47 percent of African-American students graduate in four years.
Researchers said the new data should lead to improvements in dropout-rate calculation methods and more accountability for the high number of dropouts.
LAUSD board President Jose Huizar agreed, saying he would ask for a specific dropout-prevention plan to be developed in the next 90 days.
``There's no doubt that the current dropout rates are unacceptable,'' he said.
But, he added: ``It's curable. There's no doubt it's preventable. It results from our failure to meet students' need.''
The figures were released ahead of a conference on the theme ``Dropouts in California: Confronting the Graduation Rate Crisis.'' The conference, scheduled for today at California State University, Los Angeles, is expected to draw about 400 education researchers, teachers and policy- makers.
The LAUSD loses the bulk of its students between their freshman and sophomore years - including 17,000 Latino students who never return for 10th grade.
Because nearly 75 percent of the district's 746,000 students are Latino, the district must tackle this problem, said Julie Mendoza, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles, who is studying the LAUSD's dropout rates.
``The bottom line, I think, is that we can do better,'' she said. ``This isn't just about numbers and calculations and smoke and mirrors. This is about human lives.''
To keep kids in school, district officials must have enough information to be able to target actual problems with LAUSD resources. They must also bring in outside partners, such as nonprofit groups and universities.
``Everybody wants to wash their hands of the problem,'' Mendoza said. ``Bottom line is, it's everybody's problem, and everybody needs to find the solution.''
It will take a massive overhaul to fix the problem, from reaching out to elementary school students to making schools smaller, educators said.
District officials will have to make sure that poor and minority students, many of whom are already behind when they start kindergarten, are given the extra resources they need, Mendoza said. Other students drop out because they need to work, are pregnant or lose interest.
George Martinez, who dropped out of Canoga Park High School in his senior year in 2003, said he gave up because he was more than 90 credits behind.
``The schools weren't hard enough on me. All they would do is suspend you for not attending. I didn't care if they suspended me: Then I don't have to go to school,'' said the 19-year-old Canoga Park resident.
Distracted by ditch parties and girls, he said, he rarely went to classes, and when he did it was often to socialize.
``It just didn't seem interesting. I always thought if you know what you are going to be, you should pay attention to that.''
Martinez now works with his father fixing water lines and attends Canoga Park Adult School. He expects to get his general educational development or GED diploma this spring.
LAUSD Superintendent Roy Romer said he understands the urgency about the dropout situation.
``Eighty percent of my time is spent trying to reduce the dropout rate,'' he said. ``I'm very concerned about that.''
Romer said he plans to bring in nonprofit groups, such as First Things First, to try to help personalize the education experience.
He said the $14 billion construction program and effort to move toward small learning communities should also help keep students in school.
Romer and others said they're grateful to have accurate numbers detailing the problem. While cumbersome, the district must use accurate formulas, analysts said.
``It matters. If you don't have a clear understanding of the nature of the problem, you can't begin to understand how to fix it,'' Mendoza said.
Dropout calculations have been the subject of national debate over the past decade, as statistics studies have become more sophisticated.
Most schools have moved away from a one-year snapshot, which was usually a flattering, single-digit number, to a four-year rate that compares the number of students who enter their freshman year with the number of students who receive diplomas four years later.
These rates can vary dramatically, depending on which students are counted as dropouts. California, for example, doesn't count students in prison as dropouts. Students working toward their GED diplomas, however, are considered dropouts.
Esther Wong, LAUSD assistant superintendent, said she thinks the state's calculation system is solid. District employees work very hard to get current information on students, she said.
But the ideal system, which California is moving toward, would allow the state to track students with unique identification numbers, she said.
``It's very frustrating because the general public gets very confused, and it's very hard to explain,'' Wong said.
To comply with requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, districts in California are asked to have an 82.5 percent graduation rate. If they haven't reached that, they are expected to improve their current rate by at least one-tenth of 1 percent.
Even so, the LAUSD failed to comply this year because the districtwide graduation rate fell to 67.7 percent from 72 percent.
If it just makes minimum gains, ``It will take Los Angeles 367 years to meet the state goal,'' Losen said.
Staff Writer Rachel Uranga and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Jennifer Radcliffe, (818) 713-3722