DUELING DROPOUT FIGURES POOR GRADUATION RATES SPUR CALLS FOR CHANGE IN LAUSD.
Depending on who you listen to, Los Angeles Unified's high school dropout rate is as high as 50 percent, as low as 25 percent - or somewhere in between.
Whoever you believe, the district's poor graduation rate has become one of the central issues raised by critics - including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa - who say the city's economic future depends on improving Los Angeles' public schools, and that means producing a better educated generation of young people.
In bolstering his efforts to reform the city's education system, Villaraigosa has used figures from a Harvard University study that found that more than half of the high school students in the LAUSD drop out before getting a diploma.
That has prompted a sharp rebuttal from LAUSD officials, who maintain that the dropout rate is 24.6 percent - and certainly no higher than the 33.1 percent figure determined by the state in 2003-04. But even that, educators say, isn't good enough.
``Anytime you have 24 percent, that's a big problem; you want to reduce that. It is kind of like you're producing something and you had 24 percent of your product that you can't use, and that's not good,'' Superintendent Roy Romer said.
``Our whole acceptance of this for a period of years is wrong, and we ought to aim at every one of these individuals and say we want to give you an opportunity to continue to educate yourself and make sure you find good employment.''
Educators say the difference lies in how the rates are calculated - a process made even more difficult by the LAUSD's massive student body, 727,000 students.
In addition, a large number are immigrants, who are more difficult to track, which raises questions of whether they dropped out or simply moved elsewhere - an issue that is critical to determining the district's success and the need for reform.
``The difficulty is in finding and locating kids who have left the school - especially in LAUSD - when you're talking about hundreds of thousands of kids in the district and there's a lot of mobility in and out of schools and in and out of the city,'' said Donna Rothenbaum, education programs consultant for the California Department of Education.
``The dropout guidelines require you to really take time to find out what happened to those kids to determine if they really dropped out. It's really resource-intensive.''
The district's efforts to improve its dropout rate could be impacted this school year, when all high school students must pass the California High School Exit Exam, which tests language arts and math proficiency, in order to graduate.
Some 7,500 of the 36,000 students in the Class of 2006 still need to pass one or both parts of the exam, with just one more chance to take it this spring, officials said. If they still fail, they can attend summer school and take the test in the fall.
The district is pouring resources into after-school and weekend tutorial programs for students who have not yet passed.
It is that kind of targeted effort that prompted the district to calculate an 8 percentage point decline in dropout rates. In the past year, officials have pushed increased counseling, monitoring of students and personalized attention, especially in the ninth grade, the point where the district loses the bulk of its students.
It targeted high-risk students such as Sara Ramos, a student at Will Rogers Continuation School who seriously thought about dropping out last year until her teachers and principal took the time to persuade her to do otherwise.
Ramos, 17, said she's been able to take classes at Pierce College, attend a UCLA summer program and get work experience at a hospital.
``They give you more attention and they listen to you and there are a lot of opportunities,'' said Ramos of Pacoima.
The district's long-range plans include offering more vocational education classes and improving middle school programs to ensure that students are able to handle high school work by the time they get to ninth grade.
Los Angeles Unified School District officials maintain that even though they have successful programs in place to curb the dropout crisis, their inability to accurately track students makes the dropout rate appear worse than it is.
Currently, California schools use the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Educational Statistics calculation: high school graduates and high school dropouts aggregated over a four-year period.
But the state is in the process of collecting information for a statewide student tracking system that officials say will be able to track students wherever they move in California.
``All the kids have already been identified. Hopefully we'll finally start getting realistic counts of dropout rates and graduation rates,'' Rothenbaum said.
In the meantime, those who want to see the LAUSD broken into smaller districts or controlled by the mayor are using the most damaging numbers available to prove their case.
Former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, another advocate of reforming the LAUSD, defended the figures in the study by Harvard, which used enrollment and diploma data to calculate the dropout rate.
``This is not just politicians saying something. It's the No. 1 university in the world and they said it was 54 percent,'' he said. ``I think if they would not be so defensive and just focus on educating kids, I think they would do much better.''
But, school board member Julie Korenstein said, it harms students as well as the district when politicians use inflated and inaccurate figures.
``It's important to give valid information and, secondly, it's very demeaning to the people at our schools who are working so hard, because they're being told they're failures,'' said Korenstein, who two weeks ago stormed out of a luncheon at which Villaraigosa cited the 50 percent figure during a speech. ``To say a 50 percent dropout rate and, in fact, it's 24.6 percent, is a real disservice.''
Romer emphasized that contrary to the perception being perpetuated of a failing district, its progress has been faster than the average school in California's for the past six years.
It's working on increasing the graduation rate one student at a time, and Romer said he's certain the numbers will grow as it continues to improve student tracking accuracy, grow the small-school movement and target students at risk of dropping out.
``It's not a failing district. The district is succeeding rapidly, but we have so much more yet to go,'' Romer said. ``That doesn't mean we don't have a lot of work to do.
``Unfortunately, people are throwing around gross generalities, so we hurt children when we are not using accurate information.''
Ramos is one of those students the district was able to keep on track to graduation. She's planning on attending Pierce College for two years and then transferring to UCLA to study medicine.
``My principal said something that stuck. She said, picture yourself 10 years from now if you're a dropout,'' Ramos said. ``I thought, uh-uh, I don't want that to be me. I'm going to be home. I'm not going to have a job, an education, a college degree and I want to be someone in life.''
Naush Boghossian, (818) 713-3722
Seventeen-year-olds Vanessa Penuela, left, and Sara Ramos are working for their degrees at Will Rogers Continuation School.
David Sprague/Staff Photographer