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.
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.
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.'"
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."
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.
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.
The Science of Reaching Students
In the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has more than 700,000 students, just 39 percent of Latino students and 47 percent of African American students finished school, according to a Harvard University study on dropout rates in Los Angeles authored by education professor Gary Orfield (now at the University of California at Los Angeles) and three others. The national average, by comparison, is 68 percent.
"In an increasingly competitive global economy, the consequences of dropping out of high school are devastating to individuals, communities, and our national economy," the study reports. "At an absolute minimum, adults need a high school diploma if they are to have any reasonable opportunities to earn a living wage. A community where many parents are dropouts is unlikely to have stable families or social structures.
"Most businesses need workers with technical skills that require at least a high school diploma," the study adds. "Yet, with little notice, the United States is allowing a dangerously high percentage of students to disappear from the educational pipeline before graduating from high school."
In the past, psychologists such as Erik Erikson have noted the innate desire among adolescents for identity within social groups. More recently, New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell's best seller The Tipping Point created conversation about social epidemics and highlighted the growing importance of certain mavens and connectors, as he called them, who have, in contemporary terms, countless MySpace friends or names in a virtual address book.
The Los Angeles Unified School District decided to tap into this need for identity and connection through its Web-based outreach to at-risk youth because of input from student focus groups. "They told us even though they hear 'Stay in school' from parents and teachers, it means more coming from a peer," explains Debra Duardo, director of the district's Dropout Prevention and Recovery program.
During the 2004-2005 school year, for example, the LAUSD lost 11,280 students -- nearly a quarter of the student population. The district's goal is to keep about 500 extra students in school.
The future awaiting students without a diploma is clear: High school dropouts are four times more likely than college graduates to be unemployed. But there is still a widespread desire among students to succeed, which the "My Future, My Decision" campaign hopes to tap: A poll released by MTV and the National Governors' Association found that 87 percent of young people want to go on to college. -- BL