Amid the verdant lawn and leafy trees of the tidy Jefferson Senior High School campus, a police officer patrols the grounds and a sign warns that guns are illegal.
Students in this inner-city school say gang members frequently disrupt class, and teachers spend much of their time dealing with troublemakers.
The biggest problem here, however, may be what you don’t see all the dropouts.
With a 58 percent dropout rate, Jefferson has the worst dropout record in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest.
“It’s horrendous,” said Debra Duardo, director of the dropout prevention and recovery program at the district, which averages 33.6 percent dropouts.
While half the students typically quit inner-city schools nationwide, Jefferson is at the lower end of the spectrum of so-called “dropout factories” because of a concentration of factors that are rarely all present at schools in other cities.
Located in South Los Angeles, where new immigrants mostly from Mexico and Central America settle, the area has a large minority population and high poverty.
Of its 1,977 students last school year, 45 percent qualified as English learners. More than 90 percent qualified for free or reduced-price lunches.
The newcomer population means families shift quickly, following jobs or fleeing immigration raids. The school has a 57 percent transience rate, compared to a 38 percent average across district high schools.
“There’s a lack of well-paying jobs in the area,” said social studies teacher Nicolle Sefferman. “When folks have a chance to move on, they move on.”
A vast number of students are raised by single parents who struggle to support their families, financially and emotionally. Principal Juan Flecha noted that many students do not live with their parents, who work in other cities or even in other countries.
A shift in demographics has spurred racial divisions that peaked three years ago when Blacks and Latinos clashed in several bloody melees.
A quarter-century ago, Latino students totaled 31 percent of the student body; now they account for almost 90 percent. Blacks comprise about 10 percent and a sliver are Asian or White.
While ninth-graders spend a week learning conflict resolution and peer mediation, violence, particularly gang-related, frames students’ lives.
Gang rivalries are minimal in school because one group the 38th Street gang dominates school turf, but the undercurrent is ever-present. Flecha recently had to deal with a freshman who got shot in the leg on his way home from school.
Students say the gang problems divert teachers from teaching.
“Teachers pay more attention to people messing around than people who want to learn,” said Jeanette Garcia, 14.
Such factors mean that academic failure starts long before high school. Kids arrive in the ninth grade woefully unprepared and manage to cling on until they’re old enough to get a job.
“There’s a psychological effect of failure,” says Dr. Russell Rumberger, director of University of California at Santa Barbara’s California Dropout Research Project. “Kids who experience failure start to give up.”
For Sefferman, the biggest challenge is re-engaging those students. She believes Jefferson is on the right track with a new model that lets students choose a focus among creative arts, global leadership, business, and teacher preparation.
There’s also the academically rigorous New Tech Academy, where students wear business attire one day a week, and do assignments by computer.
Some students professed a sense of hopelessness at the lack of opportunity. “The only way to make money is selling dope on the corner,” said Kahyla Love, 15.
Last year, the district launched a $200,000 marketing campaign to convince kids school is worthwhile.
Promos on hip-hop radio, cell phone text messages, a MySpace Web site and You Tube videos hammered home that graduates earn an average of $175 more weekly than dropouts followed by the message: “Get your diploma.”
Administrators are evaluating if the ads were successful, but the campaign sparked interest across the country, inspiring a similar program in New York City public schools.
One of the most effective ways of keeping kids in school is simple home visits, which the district has been doing for years. The visits are now conducted by “diploma project advisers,” guidance counselors who work with dropout-risk students.
“It gives a really powerful message that if you’re not in school, we’re going to your home,” Duardo said. “Most of the time, we find dropouts not working and not happy with life.”
There are signs of turnaround. This year Jefferson qualified for $1.9 million in state funds for disadvantaged schools and plans to hire 10 teachers to reduce class sizes, a psychiatric social worker, and more security. The campus is getting a new athletic field and cafeteria.
Academically, there are glimmers of improvement. Three years ago, 50 percent of 12th-graders passed the graduation exam, LAUSD’s lowest rate. Last year, 73 percent passed.
It’s a far cry from a half-century ago when Jefferson was renowned as an athletic powerhouse and graduated notables such as actress Dorothy Dandridge, jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ralph Bunche.
But for Flecha, who grew up in South Los Angeles the son of a housecleaner, it’s a start.
“Education is truly an equalizer. I want our youngsters to have that opportunity,” he said. “But it’s one day at a time.”
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