Original URL: http://www.oaklandtribune.com/Stories/0,1413,82~1865~1483380,00.html

40% of freshmen quit, figures show
25 percent graduated; district lost track of others
Oakland Tribune
Saturday, June 28, 2003


OAKLAND -- If Oakland high schools had chairs at graduation for every freshman who didn't make it, there would be three times as many empty chairs as occupied ones.

Thousands of Oakland high school students and parents celebrated graduation this month. But 75 percent of the ninth-graders on the books in 1998 had nothing to celebrate on graduation day four years later, according to new school district records released to The
Oakland Tribune.

For the first time ever, the district tracked every student in one class of freshmen over the course of four years, and the results show only a quarter graduated from city schools.

The rest dropped out or fell off the district's radar.

The statistics give the most detailed picture to date of where students go when they leave Oakland's public schools, which has always been unclear under the state's notoriously flawed system for counting dropout and graduation rates.

By following one class of freshmen, the district found many students left and officially enrolled elsewhere. Some opted for adult school. Others took a state exam to graduate early, and a small number were incarcerated and never returned to an Oakland classroom.

But the largest number -- close to 40 percent -- dropped out or just disappeared from the rolls.

The numbers show Oakland's graduation rate is lower than state data indicates. And its real dropout rate is slightly higher than the one calculated by the state.

"I think (the new data) demonstrates graphically that Oakland Unified continues to fail too many of its children," school board President Greg Hodge said.

"Most advocates and parents won't be surprised, because we've been saying it for years."

Students who drop out often blame the schools.

"Why sit in class and try to learn when (teachers) are not trying to teach?" said Fremont High student Elder Guevara, 17. "If I stay here I feel like I'm never going to change, I'll keep getting in trouble."

"Not everybody was born school material," said Danilo Barillas, 17, another Fremont High student. "Some people get their jollies out of going to school, some don't."

Barillas dropped out, but said his parents made him return to school. He said he plans to stay, after passing all his classes on his last report card.

Guevara, who immigrated from Guatemala, has dropped out of Fremont more than once. But he now plans to earn a diploma while working in a special job program.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C., Latinos born outside the United States are more than twice as likely to drop out of high school as Latinos born here.

"I realized (dropping out) was going to mess me up," he said. "It's hard enough without a high school diploma."

Not prepared for college

Even for students who get diplomas in Oakland, graduation isn't always a total success.

The district's new records show Oakland almost totally failed to graduate students with the credits they need to get into state universities or University of California schools.

Only 7 percent of the freshmen who started school in 1998 graduated four years later with the classes they need on their transcripts to get into state or UC schools.

For African-American students, that percentage shrinks to less than 3 percent.

Black male students

That means fewer than three out of every 100 black freshmen graduated on time from city schools with enough credits to get into college. The numbers are even lower for black male students.

"That is a very disturbing statistic," said Richard Black, UC Berkeley's vice chancellor of admissions and enrollment.

"I do believe the high schools offer the courses ... but if you get off track at the beginning, you might not be able to make it on time."

School board President Hodge blamed the low African-American graduation rate on "institutional racism and societal pressures and circumstances, primarily poverty.

"It's not surprising, because this is the history of public institutions, not only in this community but in the nation at large," Hodge said.

Oakland apparently has the lowest graduation rate in the state for African-American students, especially when it comes to the number of students who graduate with college requirements, according to California Department of Education data.

Better than Oakland

San Francisco, Los Angeles, Richmond, Berkeley, Compton, Long Beach, Fresno, Santa Ana and even San Bernardino have better rates than Oakland.

By law, schools must offer what are known as the "A to G" courses, which include three years of math, four years of English, two years of foreign language and one year of art.

But whether students can realistically take all the required classes is a different story.

It's much easier for students to take those classes at Skyline High, which offers many sections of the courses, than it is for students at McClymonds High or Castlemont High.

Community college

For example, Castlemont students who fail certain classes have to retake them at a community college, because there is no room for students to retake the classes at the high school, officials said.

Also, it's not always practical for students who are years behind in English to take two years of another language.

UC Berkeley doesn't make exceptions for applicants who don't have A to G requirements on their transcripts, Black said.

Less than 30 percent of all Oakland students who received diplomas last year had all A to G classes on their transcripts. In Piedmont, that percentage is closer to 80 percent.

Keeping students in school has become a main focus for the district as it struggles with budget deficits, because more students in class means more revenue from the state.

"A lot of these kids come from families where education has not paid off for their parents," said Bruce Fuller, a University of California, Berkeley education professor. "When (parents) were young, they saw schools as places of failure and disrespect."

Students go to school when they have adults at home or at school who are actively involved in their educations, said Kim Shipp, a parent and volunteer in the district.

"In Piedmont, or if you go out to Pleasant Valley, parents understand this," Shipp said. "The difference is ... urban parents think the schools are going to do it for them and their children, and it just doesn't work like that."

In his first days on the job, new state-appointed Oakland schools chief Randolph Ward ordered schools to begin calling parents of absent students. Although that will mean a lot of extra work, Ward said it is "non-negotiable."

Experts say breaking up large high schools into smaller, autonomous academies allows teachers to give closer attention to students. The small-school model has already had some success in reducing Castlemont High's ninth-grade dropout rate, officials say.

"I think high schools are pretty depersonalizing places for a lot of kids," Fuller said. "In some ways, this century-old model of a high school has outworn its usefulness."

Distractions from school

Doyle Beverly, 18, should have had a seat at Castlemont High's graduation June 9.

Instead, Beverly contributed to Castlemont's dropout rate, the highest of the city's six large high schools.

For a while, Beverly was making progress at Castlemont. He had a 'C' average, he was passing classes and was enrolled in a successful after-school mentoring program.

Andre Mouton, head of the mentoring program, said he knows why Beverly dropped out.

"He got that car, that's what did it," Mouton said, referring to a severely beat-up, light-blue sedan parked outside Beverly's home on 89th Avenue.

Beverly was in and out of school even before he got the car. But once he had it, he started driving across town to see a girlfriend at another school instead of going to class, and fell behind.

Like many dropouts, Beverly said teachers didn't give him the help he needed to catch up.

"They give you a sheet to do and you don't know nothing about it," he said. "You just sit there and wait to cut."

In many ways, Beverly is not a typical dropout. His parents have diplomas, and encouraged him to stay in school. He wants to go to adult school and become a mechanic.

Dropouts don't usually think too far into the future, Beverly said.

"I know the consequences (of dropping out)," he said. "But kids these days, they feel they can grind (sell dope) all their lives. They want to ride around in cars, smoke, drink. They want to grow up quick."

Drug sales and use is one cause of Castlemont's dropout rate, students say.

"Right outside the school, there's the (drug) turf," said William Stevenson, 20, who dropped out of Castlemont for reasons unrelated to drugs. "That makes a difference."

Mentoring program

Several students who graduated from Castlemont this month say they would not have made it without the support of Mouton's mentoring program.

Mouton grew up in a foster home in West Oakland, and was kicked out of five high schools. He says his background allows him to relate to students in danger of falling through the cracks.

The program has lost its funding, and Mouton is trying to raise money to keep it going.

"As a school, we have to provide something (students) are not getting at home, which is stability," he said. "We don't have stability in the Oakland Unified School District."

The school tries to provide that stability by identifying chronic truants, calling in their parents and referring them to case managers or other programs, said Assistant Principal Matin abdel-Qawi .

Still, "Some don't respond well to it, (and) it would take a lot more than what we offer to keep those students on track," he said.

Oakland's data still isn't 100 percent reliable.

Some students who fell off the record books may have enrolled in another city or even another country. If Oakland doesn't receive a request for transcripts from a student's new school, the student is marked as a dropout.

There is no way to know whether students who officially transfer drop out of their new schools. And the records do not show whether students who went to adult school or juvenile hall earned diplomas there.

The state has spent millions of dollars developing a database that would track every student by assigning them an identification number, but so far progress has been slow.

"Unless every student is wire-tagged, there's no way to know where they're going," said Robin Lemoine, an analyst in the state's Educational Demographics office.

Because of that, experts say the official statewide 4-year dropout rate of 11 percent is meaningless.

"The public education establishment definitely doesn't want people to know how many kids they are losing," said Alan Bonsteel, with the pro-voucher group California Parents for Educational Choice.

State's biggest crisis

"If you ask what is the biggest crisis facing California, (the dropout rate) is an absolute crisis for the next 50 years," said Bonsteel, who dropped out from a Cupertino high school and later became a medical doctor.

"It has everything to do with how much you earn, whether you go to prison, whether you go on welfare ... it has everything to do with everything."

Part of the problem in Oakland, officials say, is algebra. About 70 percent of Oakland students fail the subject.

With such a high failure rate, the class becomes another discouragement for students who are already years behind in mathematics.

According to the latest state test results, more than 70 percent of Oakland's high school sophomores are below grade level in math.

"If you walk up to five 11th graders and ask them what's six times eight, I'll bet you a hundred bucks three of them won't know," Fremont High teacher Eric DuBois said.

"I'll bet you a thousand dollars right now."

DuBois, who works in Fremont's truancy center, said students who fall behind often give up on school.

"They feel stupid, because they haven't been taught," DuBois said.

"Somewhere along the chain from kindergarten to high school, they were neglected massively. It's an American tragedy."