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Against All Odds

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Jane Gutierrez's 15-year-old life churns with personal dramas, small and large.

Without much prompting, problems at home, trouble getting along with others, depression, and losing her boyfriend to another girl all surface in a recent conversation at San Fernando Middle School near Los Angeles.

Like so many teenagers, Jane says her young friends are into bad-idea behaviors, having sex and having babies.

For her part, this child-woman in lipstick has decided that, for now, she'd rather get on with her education than have a baby. Plus, Jane says, "I haven't found the right guy.''

Even with that qualifier, Jane's attitude toward school is an accomplishment--and a recent one.

For of the many complexities and challenges that crowd Jane's life, she offers one more: "I used to be a dropout.''

Instead of going to school last year, she says, she'd listen to the entreaties of her friends and head to "ditching parties'' along with other young girls and, in a risky mix, boys who were much older.

Such behavior is hardly surprising for someone with so many factors putting her in danger of leaving school. As a Hispanic female special-education student who lives in a low-income urban community and has made an early foray into such adult activities as dating, Jane is one of the most "at risk.''

Articulate, proud, self-aware, Jane is also a survivor, but without intervention such risk factors could have made her one more statistic. Hispanics have the highest dropout rate among the nation's major ethnic groups.

What has apparently kept Jane from that fate thus far, in addition to her own strong will, is the help of Susie Mays, a counselor-advocate with a dropout-prevention experiment at Jane's school in San Fernando, an old Spanish mission town in the sun-baked San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles.

An unreserved woman with a can-do attitude, Mays would leave her school office and track Jane down if she left campus. And, as Jane tells it, Mays was always in her face reminding her that she had options beyond getting pregnant or doing drugs.

Jane says Mays has been a comfort, "like a friend to talk to right there about your problems.''

Now, Jane, ready to enter high school next year, tells other students that if she can go in one year from earning mostly D's to all A's and B's, they can, too. "You just have to think positive,'' she says.

Of course, keeping at-risk students in school takes effort beyond positive thinking. As those who run San Fernando Middle School's dropout-prevention experiment are the first to acknowledge, Jane and her peers are hardly out of the woods yet.

They still have high school to negotiate. And they'll have to do that without the constant, hard-nosed-but-motherly monitoring of counselors like Mays.

At San Fernando Middle School, as is often the case with at-risk populations, the surrounding community is poor. The per-capita income is about half that of the state and county averages. Almost two-thirds of the students' parents have not graduated from high school. Nearly 94 percent of the school's 2,000 students are Hispanic, and three-fourths of the parents speak only Spanish at home.

Obviously, such factors influence student achievement at school.

The average student performance on the California Test of Basic Skills puts the school's students in the bottom quarter of test-takers nationwide. The school is one of the 25 lowest academically achieving schools in the district. And about one out of five students is absent from school on any given day.

An informal survey of incoming 7th graders taken by a teacher in 1991 revealed that half of the boys and a third of the girls were then failing a class. Nearly two-thirds of both sexes had friends in gangs or had stolen twice from a store in the past year.

Even more troubling, four out of 10 boys and half of the girls had contemplated suicide. About a quarter of them had actually tried to kill themselves.

Many physical and social hazards lurk around San Fernando Middle School--from the earthquake-damaged buildings to the new light-rail commuter train whizzing past one edge of the campus that has killed two young students this year.

The school also sits right on the border between the territories of two rival Hispanic gangs--one out the back door, one out the front. The location makes travel between the two communities a social obstacle course for some students and a waiting trap for others.

It is in this community, then, that two University of California at Santa Barbara researchers--Russell W. Rumberger and Katherine A. Larson--decided to test their dropout-prevention program.

Arguably, San Fernando Middle School's entire 7th- to 9th-grade student body lies "at risk.'' But Rumberger and Larson have selected only the most at-risk students to participate: the bottom 25 percent of entering regular-education students, the special-education students, the learning disabled, and the emotionally disturbed.

The hope is to elevate these children out of their dropout destiny--and to keep them away from gangs, drugs, and early pregnancy. That desire is mirrored in the name of the program, ALAS, or Achievement for Latinos through Academic Success. "Alas,'' pronounced "aah-lahss,'' is Spanish for wings.

Funded by the U.S. Education Department's office of special-education programs and the University of California system, the project's experimental design makes it unusual for education research. Once the researchers identified the program students, they randomly assigned them to treatment or control groups--in effect deciding not to intervene in the fate of the "control'' students. Some 200 students were selected to take part in the dropout-prevention experiment, with about 100 in each of the two groups.

Beginning in 1990-91, the students in the treatment group received the program's intervention services for all three years of middle school. The control group received the traditional secondary school program.

In designing the program, the researchers set out to have interventions address the four spheres of influence on students' lives and school performance--teachers, school, parents, and other students.

ALAS has three main focuses: problem-solving with students and families; close monitoring--even hour by hour--of attendance, tardiness, homework, grades, behavior, and notes home; and training for parents in everything from child-rearing skills to how to get what they need from school officials and teachers.

In doing so, ALAS has tried to overcome the barriers thrown up by the school culture, the student culture, and the prevailing Mexican-American culture.

"The goal is to empower both the parents and the kids,'' project director Larson says. And to help them "have the skills to achieve a different vision of the future.''

Now completing the fourth year of the five-year project, the ALAS staff can document success after three full school years.

Just 5 percent of the ALAS students, compared with 25 percent of the control students, were absent from school one-fourth of the time or more in 9th grade.

During 9th grade, 15 percent of the ALAS students, compared with 31 percent of the control students, failed English. In other subjects, too, ALAS students failed at rates much lower than the control students.

The program also reduced the proportion of children who moved to another school. Just one-fifth of the ALAS students, compared with 35 percent of the controls, left the middle school by the end of 9th grade.

In addition, one out of eight control students dropped out--13 percent--while none of the ALAS students dropped out during middle school. Students are considered dropouts, Larson says, when there is no request for a cumulative school record within 45 days of the student's departure from the last school.

ALAS also seems to be winning the hearts of the students, including the ones it had no intention of reaching.

Since its inception, the students--both those included in the experiment and those outside it--have done an about-face in their opinion of the program. At first, ALAS students were reluctant to come when summoned, suspicious of something that they thought was for "nerds'' or would set them apart from their friends. Some were asked by their peers if they were in ALAS because they were "retarded.''

But now, other students see the good relationship ALAS students have with counselors--the help they get with academic and family matters alike.

As a result, some of the non-ALAS children want in.

"A week doesn't go by,'' Mays says, "without kids saying, 'Why can't I be in ALAS? I've got all kinds of problems.'''

A couple of mothers were so adamant about getting their children in that the program has agreed to counsel and monitor students outside the experimental design.

The ALAS room at school, a converted home-economics classroom, is as likely to be buzzing with non-ALAS students between classes as it is with students in the program.

"It's comfortable to them,'' Mays says. "They feel safe. They feel accepted.''

Apparently, those are not feelings these children get very often.

The problem of students dropping out of school extends far beyond San Fernando. Dropouts are a national concern, and improving the graduation rate of U.S. students has received national prominence. In fact, one of the eight national education goals sets out to bring the high school graduation rate to 90 percent by 2000.

The stakes are high. Research shows that dropouts generally have higher rates of unemployment, get paid less for the work they can find, and are more likely than high school graduates to require social services over the course of their lives.

Attention to the phenomenon is especially urgent for Hispanics, 22.4 million strong in this country. Hispanics (or Latinos, the preferred term in California and certain metropolitan areas) are the fastest-growing ethnic minority in the United States.

One-third of U.S. Hispanics live in California. Some two-thirds live in 13 metropolitan areas, with the top three being Los Angeles, New York, and Miami.

Across the Los Angeles Unified School District, two-thirds of its more than 600,000 students are Hispanic. At San Fernando Middle School, by far the majority of students are Mexican-Americans, an ethnic subgroup that makes up nearly two-thirds of the nation's Hispanic population, followed by Puerto Ricans and Cubans.

Students drop out of school for a lot of different reasons. And because many of those reasons are often closely intertwined, they can be hard to pin down. Nonetheless, researchers have identified a handful of factors that influence dropout behavior: family background, such as socioeconomic status, English proficiency, and parental involvement; school culture and practices; community, such as work opportunities and peers; and each student's personal characteristics and attitudes.

Hispanic dropouts display many of the same characteristics and behaviors as other dropouts. They dislike school, they get poor grades, they have discipline problems, and they don't look to continue their education.

But Hispanic students have different circumstances and challenges, too. They are more likely to attend big urban schools with a large number of poor minority students--schools where dropping out is more common than staying in.

According to 1992 Census Bureau figures, Hispanics drop out of school at a rate nearly four times that of non-Hispanic whites, and a rate more than twice that of blacks. Among those ages 16 to 24 in 1992, 29.4 percent of Hispanics were dropouts, while 13.7 percent of blacks and 7.7 percent of whites were. Hispanics make up nearly a third of all dropouts in that 16-to-24 age group, yet they represent only 11.2 percent of that population over all.

Hispanics also drop out of school earlier than other groups. Forty percent of Hispanic dropouts ages 16 to 24 left school with a less than a 9th-grade education, compared with 15 percent of white dropouts and 10 percent of black dropouts, according to 1992 Census data. More than half of the Hispanic dropouts in this country have less than a 10th-grade education, compared with one-third of white and one-fourth of black dropouts.

What's more, researchers have tracked significant ethnic-subgroup differences within the Hispanic population. The dropout patterns and rates for Mexican-American youths, for example, are not the same as those for Cuban or Puerto Rican students. In fact, according to a 1988 Census Bureau report, the difference in dropout rates between Hispanics of Cuban origin and those of Mexican origin were even greater than the difference between Hispanics and non-Hispanics. Census figures indicate that Mexican-Americans have the highest dropout rate among all Hispanic subgroups.

Despite such staggering statistics, few dropout-prevention programs focus specifically on Hispanics. Of the nearly 500 school- or community-based dropout programs surveyed nationally by the U.S. General Accounting Office in 1986, just 26 primarily served Hispanic youths.

On a recent morning, parents took seats in San Fernando Middle School's ALAS room to talk about what the program has meant to them--and their children. Eager to sing the praises of ALAS, one mother describes in her native Spanish how much her son, now in 10th grade, benefited from the program. When he was in middle school, she says through a translator, it didn't look as though he would graduate, at least not on time. But in the ALAS program he received tutoring and help with his homework. That individual attention, she says, made all the difference.

Keeping tabs on his high school experience, however, has proved more difficult.

Asked how his high school teachers think he's doing now, the mother says she doesn't know. She hasn't talked to his teachers. She's tried without success to get in touch with the high school counselor, who, she says, does not return her phone calls. She adds that there is no one she can trust at the high school the way she trusted Magda Neil, a counselor-advocate with the ALAS program.

Asked why she did not persist when her son made a recent high school report card "disappear,'' she pauses and says, "No excuse, just lazy.''

Then, she begins to weep. After a long pause, she explains that she has many worries because her husband is earning only $150 a week on a factory assembly line. The couple has seven children.

Many of the other ALAS families have a difficult time making ends meet, too. Most have several children. Usually one or both parents--and in at least one case, older siblings--work at low-paying jobs in factories or service industries, pasting labels on shampoo bottles, planting palm trees, doing housekeeping.

Some have slightly better jobs but heavy burdens. One mother, a licensed vocational nurse at a local clinic, is bringing up three children on her own.

Many Hispanics count themselves among the working poor. In 1990, Hispanic married-couple income was only 69 percent of white married-couple income. This even though Hispanic men hold jobs in greater proportions than non-Hispanic men and Hispanic women are participating in the labor force in growing numbers.

Hispanic families are more than three times as likely to live in poverty as whites. In 1990, 29.3 percent of Hispanic families had incomes below the poverty line, while just 8.1 percent of white Americans did.

The proportion of Hispanic dropouts soars when combined with low incomes. Among 16- to 24-year-old Hispanics with low family incomes (in the bottom 20 percent of family incomes), 1992 Census figures reveal that 44.7 percent were dropouts, compared with 24 percent of low-income blacks and 19 percent of low-income whites. Even in the middle-income range, one-quarter of Hispanics were dropouts, while fewer than 10 percent of blacks and whites were.

Intertwined with poverty, Hispanics also suffer from low education levels.

The Census Bureau found that in 1990 about 40 percent of Hispanic 24- to 34-year-olds--an age group raising school-age children--had not completed high school and were three times as likely not to have done so than other Americans.

Higher education is also more elusive for Hispanics. Of those age 25 or older in 1990, 22.2 percent of whites had completed college, while just 9.7 percent of Hispanics had, according to the Census Bureau.

Equalizing educational-attainment levels would have the most impact in pushing Hispanics out of poverty, according to a report last year by the National Council of La Raza. If there were no differences in educational attainment between Hispanics and whites, 29.6 percent of all low-income Hispanics over the age of 25 would be lifted out of poverty, according to the report.

Better educational backgrounds would also make parents better able to prepare their children for school. Research has shown that the amount of education parents have is the most powerful predictor of how a child will do in school.

Julie Ford, a 9th-grade mathematics teacher at San Fernando Middle School, has a few gripes about parents at the virtually all-Hispanic school.

When it comes to students' attendance, Ford says, it's a problem when parents don't know the effect of pulling their children from school to go to Mexico or keeping their children home to translate for them or baby-sit siblings.

With the school's open house coming up later in the week, Ford and other teachers sitting around a table in the ALAS room bemoan the perennial low parental attendance. "I'm not going to let these parents off the hook,'' Ford asserts. "They managed to come to open house when their children were in 1st grade.''

Better work habits at home need to be enforced, too, Ford argues. "It's like school ends at 3 and education stops there.''

Such complaints, stemming from puzzlement and frustration, are not uncommon when educators deal with Hispanic students, according to the authors of a chapter on Hispanic culture and school reform in a recently published book on at-risk students.

When parents distance themselves from school and students arrive without preschool experience or basic skills, a significant number of teachers and administrators "leap to the conclusion that parents don't care,'' say the authors, Rafael Valdivieso, the vice president and director of school and community services at the Academy for Educational Development in Washington, and Siobhan Nicolau, the president of the Hispanic Policy Development Project in New York City.

"In fact,'' the authors write, "most Hispanics respect the school system deeply, but they tend to relate to it as most Americans relate to doctors or lawyers or priests--with awe. They do not feel that they have any role to play in the education process, and they do not think that they belong in school unless their child has been causing trouble.''

Such parental views are borne out later that day when a group of San Fernando Middle School parents gathered in the same room to weigh in with their perspectives.

One mother, Angie Mejia, says she was raised not to question the authority of people who run a school. "They were the school,'' she says. "They knew the best thing for students.''

Juanita Cabrera, who has two sons in the ALAS program, addresses misperceptions about Hispanic parents. "They always say Latino people don't care about our children or education. It's not true,'' she says in Spanish. "The thing is, we are not Orientals. We do not know what to do.''

But, she says, with the ALAS program and its emphasis on empowering parents, "we have learned.''

However, as Valdivieso, a sociologist, points out, there's a lot to learn. "Many Hispanics, like a lot of other kids whose parents are not college educated and are not professionals, have very little guidance about what to do in school.''

For example, "kids of working-class families, working-poor families, just don't know what it takes to be a nurse,'' for example, he says. If you hear a young woman say she wants to be a nurse, and you ask her if she has taken a biology class or advanced-math class, she has not. "The parents were either not aware of or didn't realize the importance of it,'' Valdivieso says.

William Velez, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, has found parent education to be "an important predictor of dropping out.'' He speculates that "it could be that you have a role model or it could be that your father is a better manager of your schooling the more schooling he has.''

Hispanics born or schooled in Mexico are often not knowledgeable about the U.S. education system, adds ALAS's Rumberger. Their deferential attitude toward school officials is "very unlike white middle-class parents, who constantly challenge what schools do.''

Other cultural aspects of Hispanic families can have an impact on their children's school lives as well. Hispanic girls, for example, are often expected to take on family responsibilities, such as caring for a grandparent or a younger sibling.

Family loyalty is important, says Michelle Fine, a professor of psychology at the City University of New York Graduate Center. "It's not even an arm-wrestle to figure out if they should selfishly succeed in school or take care of their family,'' Fine says.

Girls may also leave because they become pregnant or get married, Valdivieso says. Although young marriages don't necessarily get the kind of policy attention paid to unmarried pregnancies, he says, if girls get married at 16 or 17, they may well not finish school.

"The families believe less in the education of girls,'' Rumberger adds. "Males are still supposed to be breadwinners.'' Such a view has practical grounding, especially if the family is poor, he says. "They need all the workers they can get.''

The flip side is that Hispanic boys who work while in school may fall behind and eventually drop out, too. If there is a full-time job they can continue to work at--or the promise of a full-time job--the risk runs even higher, Valdivieso says.

David PeÄna and Nora Murillo, both 16, are 10th graders at San Fernando High School and are both veterans of the middle school's ALAS program. They know how easy it can be for students to shirk school responsibilities when their parents don't speak the same language as school officials.

But the ALAS program makes that harder to do. Students have "dailies''--evaluation sheets--of their classroom behavior and compliance with homework and other requirements. Each of the students' teachers fills in a portion of the sheet. It then goes home to the parents to be read, signed, and returned the next day.

"Because of the dailies, I started doing homework,'' Nora remembers. David adds that he couldn't assume his parents wouldn't understand them "because Ms. Mays wrote them in Spanish!''

If students weren't on dailies, they say, "parents wouldn't ever find out'' what's going on.

Parents, including Nora's father, agree. Eleazar Murillo, a talkative, thoughtful man, says one of the reasons parents aren't more vigilant about report cards and other things is "not understanding what you see.''

Some of the confusion stems from the Spanish-English hurdle. His wife once signed their daughter out of the special-education classes she needed, he recalls, because "she didn't know what she was signing because it was in English.'' But he adds that the school grading system is totally different in Mexico.

The ALAS program found a way to get around the language barrier--and the fact that some parents are illiterate in their native Spanish. Instead of writing out comments on students' dailies, teachers use a number and symbol system for evaluating student performance. A drawing of a house, for instance, indicates that the student has homework that night.

If their English is limited, Hispanic parents are "less able to help their kids with their homework and less able to help them achieve English proficiency,'' Rumberger says. Less educated parents, Hispanic or not, he says, "know less about the school system and about how the school system works.''

According to Census Bureau data, the dropout rate of Hispanics ages 16 to 24 who speak Spanish at home is three times the overall dropout rate and twice as large as the dropout rates for Hispanics who speak English very well or do not report using Spanish at home.

On this day in April, ALAS staff members were getting the word out that the open house for parents was coming up. The day after tomorrow.

But a small gathering of Spanish-speaking parents of San Fernando Middle School students in the ALAS program didn't know about it. Nor did the parents in a similar group the night before.

Somewhere along the line, communication had broken down. It may have been the Spanish-English language barrier. Or that the notice came in written form instead of oral, which is preferable for some Hispanics.

It may have been that the school sent notices home with the children. Just another school missive stuffed in a backpack or tossed aside on the walk home. Or it may have been that the reminders that did make it home appeared on page 14 of a 19-page school newsletter.

A school's culture and policies can also push its dropout rate up. Researchers identify several ways to change schools to make them better able to serve at-risk students such as Hispanics as well as make school more appealing.

Several experts suggest turning large, anonymous schools into smaller units--schools within schools.

Fine, the CUNY psychologist who is also a consultant to the Philadelphia Schools Collaborative that is restructuring comprehensive high schools, says the work in Philadelphia "charter schools'' has shown that Hispanic students respond well to the smaller school communities the charters create. She adds that Hispanic students in bilingual programs--which effectively function as smaller school communities--have a much higher rate of staying in school than their peers.

Poor guidance and career counseling in schools, Valdivieso says, foster "the lack of connection between the world of work and the world of study.''

"It's like leading double lives for a lot of these students,'' he explains. "They work and they go to school, but it doesn't meet.'' Neither the teacher nor the employer tries to draw on the student's experiences in the other sector.

Valdivieso looks to apprenticeship programs as one solution especially helpful to Hispanics. "Already Hispanics do need money for their family income, or at least to take care of their own needs,'' he says. "They are already working to a great extent, so why not try to do more with that.''

But more emphasis should be placed on thinking about careers, he adds, not just a job to make money. If a student is working at a hamburger joint, for example, he ought to be thinking about managing the restaurant someday.

Academic tracking also has its down side for at-risk youths, such as Hispanics. In the lower tracks, Valdivieso says, students often "don't feel like what they're there for is to learn and improve themselves academically. They don't take it seriously. It's not challenging.'' To make matters worse, he says, "the teachers see it as a chore.''

"At the higher tracks,'' he says, "the students really do think of this as something that is serious and challenging and engaging--active learning, not just passively being drilled.''

Valdivieso suggests heterogeneous groupings that use cooperative learning techniques. Such group settings, he says, are especially suited to Hispanics' team-oriented, cooperative style of learning and social organization.

Velez of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee argues that schools should also increase the proportion of Hispanic teachers and modify the curriculum--especially in social studies, history, literature--so there is more content on the contributions of Hispanics to U.S. history.

Some schools have also learned to work with, rather than fight, student mobility and transience, Fine says. A handful of charter schools in Philadelphia worked with the fact that their Puerto Rican students, for example, were traveling back and forth to the island. Some schools made contact with schools in Puerto Rico. One went to 10-week sessions, a more reasonable amount of time to expect students to stay put.

"The capacity to cross borders is a strength,'' Fine says. "What we need to do is create institutions that recognize those skills as strengths rather than as deficits or characteristics that make the students ill-fitting to our institutions.''

At San Fernando Middle School, Larson and her ALAS staff are constantly "tweaking'' the system to make it work better for students and parents. But some researchers, including Rumberger, wonder how much staying in school and graduating really helps members of minority groups, especially when they try to get a job in today's marketplace.

"Are there any jobs waiting for these kids?'' asks Gary Wehlage, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "Can they get into any kind of higher education, or our technical-college system? The answer often is no.''

Wehlage, who is also the associate director of the Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools at the Madison campus, acknowledges that even if graduation were not a consideration, children and society are almost always better off if they are in school and not on the streets.

"I don't want to pooh-pooh the dropout-prevention idea,'' he adds. "But we have to figure out a way to have high-quality vocational-technical programs in high school that will lead to the kinds of jobs that are out there. Because realistically speaking, most high school graduates are not prepared to enter the workforce.''

Otherwise, Wehlage says, you have to ask about dropout prevention: "To what end?''

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