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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Log On, Don't Drop Out: Technology Trumps Truancy

The Los Angeles Unified School District enlists MySpace-savvy students to reduce the dropout rate.
By Brian Libby

For decades, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has struggled with one of the nation's highest dropout rates. Barely half of entering freshman graduate, and minorities have been hit especially hard by this problem. But thanks to an innovative approach to fighting truancy that combines technology, peer advocacy, and more personalized attention from counselors, graduation rates in Los Angeles may finally be on an upswing.

Thinking Differently

The district's Dropout Prevention and Recovery program (DPR) has developed "My Future, My Decision," a campaign that integrates a new generation of online social-networking and communication tools with established truancy-outreach methods. If you're a student in Los Angeles the district targets as a risk to drop out based on attendance, grades, or other factors, you won't just get a recorded phone call to your parents' house or even a truant officer knocking on the door. "My Future, My Decision" will use contemporary technology, such as text messaging and networking through Web sites such as MySpace and YouTube, to reach you.

MyGraduation: The Los Angeles Unified School District's dropout-prevention program is on MySpace.com.

Considering the district's sobering graduation-rate statistics -- a 2006 study sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation ranked the LAUSD in the bottom six of the country's fifty largest school districts -- there's practically nothing to lose in embracing new technologies and strategies for reaching at-risk students. "The district created a series of student focus groups, organized by gender and cultural background, and we gave all of them the same message," explains Debra Duardo, director of DPR. "They told us, 'You've got to go where they are. They're on MySpace and YouTube. They're all text messaging each other.'"

Person-to-Person Still Matters

The backbone of the Los Angeles district's new program is the people involved. A major component of "My Future, My Decision" is enlistment of kids who have successfully returned to school after dropping out so they can spread the message about the importance of graduating. These current students and recent graduates are the ones who will use social-networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace to build a sense of community among those who have grappled with dropping out.

After returning to school, Areceli Vasquez (featured in the video below), now a fifth-year senior at Jordan High School, in Los Angeles, started recruiting her peers to the "My Future, My Decision" campaign. Vasquez, on track to earn her diploma in early 2008, speaks to fellow students on YouTube about getting inspired to succeed. "The people who inspired me are my family, friends, counselors, the principal, my boyfriend," Vasquez notes. "They inspired me to come back because they said, 'Without a diploma, there's no way to get a good job.'"

YouTestimonial: Areceli Vasquez explains why she returned to school.

Courtesy of YouTube

Vasquez was targeted for attention by one of LAUSD's eighty new special counselors, who seek out both middle school and high school students at risk of dropping out as well as those who have already left school. Working with students and their parents, these diploma project advisers (DPAs) develop individual graduation plans that can include online courses, community college classes, and studies at alternative high schools.

Vasquez, a classic example, lives in Los Angeles in a single-parent household with her father. (Her mother lives out of state.) When she fell behind on credits, she initially feared not being able to graduate with her class. But after counselors approached her for the “My Future, My Decision” campaign, she embraced the idea of graduating as a fifth-year senior.

"I just want to inspire other people that dropped out to come back to school because there is a second chance," Vasquez explains in the campaign's YouTube video message. "You guys just need to come back and do what you have to do to finish what you started. All those years you’ve been in school, and you’re going to leave because you can’t do it? You can, and there are people supporting you, so you can do it. So come back -- we need you -- so you can get better things and get a better job."

Lessons Learned

What's most encouraging about the "My Future, My Decision" campaign isn't the bluster of employing popular technology, but rather its intelligent use of resources to enact change from within.

Though adequate funding is important to any program, the simplicity of this idea -- building a new online social network that encourages at-risk students and gives them the right combination of peer and adult support -- is one that could be applied to schools with the smallest of budgets.

David Brewer III, superintendent of the LAUSD with "My Future, My Decision" participants.

Courtesty myfuturemydecision.org

If there is a lesson for other districts, it is that for students to successfully shed the stigma of dropping out, they'll need a supportive community of both peers and adults within the school system.

Ultimately, the LAUSD's new approach to improving graduation rates will succeed not because of any one component but because of its fluidity. For example, besides the outreach from peers and counselors, the "My Future, My Decision" campaign will include the "Parent-Student Handbook," a new guide that outlines the spectrum of resources available to students to earn diplomas.

In conjunction with the City of Los Angeles, DPR is expanding its youth-employment program so students can better balance school and work. DPR has also begun airing a radio campaign in which popular DJs speak to at-risk students, and it will post a series of video testimonials from students on YouTube.

At the same time, the district is maintaining tangible goals, including a targeted 5 percent reduction in the dropout rate for the 2007-08 school year. As many as 7,000 students drop out of U.S. high schools each day, according to the Gates study, so this mission is an urgent one.

"I think we need to look at our school systems and how they're changing," Duardo says. "We can't continue to do what we're doing and get the same results. The statistics can be different depending on whom you talk to, but everybody agrees we're not saving or serving enough kids who are at risk. It's a different population, and we need to make sure we're meeting their needs. We need to look at what works for kids."

Brian Libby is a freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon. Visit his Web site.

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Leonard Isenberg's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am not a freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon like Brian Libby, but rather a continuation school teacher in LAUSD. What bothers me about programs like My Future, My Decision is they offer a simplistic solution without substance to the self-inflicted wounds of LAUSD.

In a school district that permits 43 to 1 student to teacher ratios and which spends money on everything other than the fundamental necessity of lowering class size, it is much easier to promulgate vacuous edspeak ideas of inspiration and staying the course, then to pragmatically examine why education has been allowed to continually fail, since the time when I got an education from LAUSD that was the foundation for my three college degrees and a journeyman's level in automotive and construction trade skills.

When children are socially promoted through grade after grade, they get to a point in high school where they are trying to do 9th grade level standards with 3rd or 4th grade language and math skills. The normal response to this kind of frustrating and degrading experience is to quit school (the District always talks about teaching to grade level standards but never asks whether the students have the foundational standards from the previous grades).

Social promotion is alive and well in LAUSD where teachers are routinely coerced into giving passing "D" grades to students who have done little or no work and who should have been retained until they did. Without regressing the present enormous population of students that are or will drop out back to a level at which they can function and attain a modicum of self-satisfaction, just getting them back in school will have little effect other than increasing the amount of money LAUSD gets from the state for Average Daily Attendance (ADA).

In a school district where 92% of the Whites are out of public education, the present level of daycare offered to the vast majority Black and Latino students so that they do not reach their academic vocational potential does serve the purpose of maintaining the not too veiled White feelings of superiority. If Blacks and Latinos reached their potential, then 350 of ugly history would finally have to be seriously examined and the endless supply of cheap Latino labor might have to be augmented by some White folks busing their own dishes.

vicky's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a parent with a 17 year old that is in fear of not graduating.I think this program sounds great for good kids who just need a litle more time and not be kicked out due to thier age and credits. so we are now looking for a good continuation that will allow her to achieve her diploma.I don't believe Hawthorne district offers such a good plan. Any suggestions

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