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Mayor’s dropout plan only looks new

first_imgMayor Antonio Villaraigosa has proposed a detailed nine-point plan aimed at dramatically improving Los Angeles Unified’s dropout rate – a plan that is virtually identical to efforts already in place in the district. The plan, part of an 18-month review of best practices at schools across the country, proposes everything from boosting after-school programs to improving tracking of at-risk students. But the district already began implementing such measures last year, raising questions about whether Villaraigosa’s vision of school reform is a blueprint that will truly make a difference. And even though the district and the mayor’s efforts appear similar, UCLA professor John Rogers said it’s too early to conclude they are the right steps. “All of the ideas are positive,” he said. “Whether they’re enough to make a substantial difference is a harder question.” The Mayor’s Office defended its dropout proposal, saying it differs significantly from district efforts because it emphasizes ending the practice of promoting students to the next grade even if they’re not ready. Officials also note the district’s dropout efforts have been sporadic and the mayor’s plan would emphasize creating smaller, more personalized schools to reduce dropouts. “There is no evidence that the district has moved to implement a dropout reduction plan with the required urgency to solve the problem,” said Marshall Tuck, education adviser to the mayor. “What we need is leaders committed to a total realignment of the organization.” To be fair, the mayor’s demand for closer involvement and efforts to gain control of the district appear to have been a factor behind the district boosting measures to stem dropouts. The problem has been a lightning rod for criticism for years, with several studies finding that more than half of LAUSD students don’t graduate. Focus turns to at-risk While a study by the California Department of Education placed LAUSD’s dropout rate at 24percent, the differing figures spotlighted a poor district tracking system. It also was Deputy Mayor Ray Cortines’ pressure that pushed the district to begin a computerized attendance tracking system that lets teachers more closely monitor absences. In August, amid attacks from the mayor, LAUSD rolled out a $10million program designed to keep at-risk students at school and to re-enroll those who leave. The district hired 80 “diploma project advisers” and placed them at 46 high schools and 34 middle schools that have dropout rates above the state average. Counselors are tasked with reviewing attendance data and grades to identify at-risk students and even visit students’ homes to try to bring back those who have dropped out. LAUSD also has started better tracking dropouts to find out why they left, and it’s developing better records of the actual dropout rate. District officials are training teachers and principals to interpret the data and have implemented districtwide policies on when to call an absent student’s home and when to set up parent conferences. The district is also looking to expand alternative education programs such as part-time school attendance to retain students who don’t necessarily want to attend college. All of those district efforts are mirrored in the mayor’s nine-point plan. Tuck, education adviser to Cortines, credited the district for moving forward but emphasized that implementation and results rely on the details. “We need to ask questions like: Are the strategies being implemented districtwide? How many dropped out? What’s the goal to get them back into schools? How many kids are they bringing back? Why are they coming back? Why aren’t they coming back? What are the district’s measures of success?” Tuck said. “There’s not one silver bullet. We’re looking at a comprehensive, integrated, districtwide strategy that spans from pre-K to the 12th grade,” he said. “Unless you’re doing all the strategies and implementing them comprehensively … it’s very difficult to stall the dropout problem.” District officials acknowledge their dropout strategies are not in effect at all district schools, but they said the problem has been funding. Each diploma project adviser costs $100,000, so “it boils down to how many resources you have,” Superintendent David BrewerIII said. Still, Brewer said principals have been made aware they will be held accountable for improvements at school sites. Brewer cited efforts at Polytechnic High School in Sun Valley, which created ninth- and 10th-grade centers with counseling services to help students transition to the next grade level. Failing the Exit Exam Rogers, who has been studying Exit Exams throughout the state, said that despite LAUSD’s efforts to reduce dropouts, the percentage of students who graduated was substantially smaller in 2006 than in the previous five years. The Exit Exam, which all students are required to pass to receive a diploma, became mandatory for graduation last year, and that had a negative impact on the district’s graduation rates. As part of dropout prevention and recovery efforts, the district launched massive intervention programs and boot camps to get more students to pass the exam. So far, the district only has comprehensive tracking data for January, which showed 3,533 middle and high school students with 10 or more unresolved absences. The data also showed 307 withdrawals and 3,217 students with three or more truancies for the month. But district officials said it’s too early to draw conclusions because there are no comparative data yet. Rogers credits LAUSD for taking steps to counter the exam’s effect on the dropout rate, but he said it is too little, too late. “There’s only so much impact extra tutoring will have in the student’s 12th-grade year if you haven’t provided sufficient learning opportunities in the seventh grade, eighth grade and ninth grade,” said Rogers, who also is co-director of the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access at UCLA’s graduate school of education. Ultimately, some say what’s really needed at the district – beyond improved tracking and mentoring – is funding for programs that will reduce the dropout rate. Debra Duardo, director of LAUSD’s dropout prevention, intervention and recovery program, said her effort also could use the mayor’s help to deal with students’ social issues. “We have homeless students, safety issues, poverty and gang violence and so many other issues that we need to work together with the Mayor’s Office and anybody else who wants to come to the table.” [email protected] (818) 713-3722 Mayor’s key proposals Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has proposed nine key steps to address the dropout problem in LAUSD: Definitions and goals: LAUSD must standardize how it defines a “dropout,” publish information on graduation rates annually and make data available to parents and community members. Improved tracking system: Consistent processes and systems are needed for tracking and reporting student achievement, attendance and disciplinary actions. End social promotion. Smaller schools: Schools should be smaller to offer closer teacher-student interactions, more personalized attention and a greater likelihood that students will not fall through the cracks. Intervention programs: School days and weeks should be extended to allow more literacy, vocabulary and basic skills programs beginning in elementary school. “Summer Bridge” programs needed to help students transition to middle and high schools. Mentoring, counseling and after-school programs for low-performers and others are needed. Career-oriented courses, technical training and vocational education should be expanded. Parents and community: Contact parents early and often when their children are struggling academically or facing disciplinary actions. Develop individualized plans for at-risk students. Get community-based organizations involved. Dropouts and juvenile offenders: Provide options to re-enter traditional public school, take vocational training or adult classes. Develop specialized recovery-focused schools, GED test preparation courses and transition courses for community colleges or vocational education. Professional development: Assist administrators and teachers with improved tracking techniques and training to identify at-risk students. Accountability: Evaluations of principals and school administrators should include schoolwide performance on student retention and dropouts.last_img

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