A Second Chance

An innovative program in Chula Vista, Calif., gives dropouts—and those at risk of dropping out—the opportunity to earn their diplomas in a setting more tailored to their individual needs

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It’s a hot day in mid-April at Mar Vista High School in Imperial Beach, Calif., a ragged suburb of San Diego just north of the Mexican border. In less than two months, the seniors will be graduating; among them will be Denise Torres Gullick, a poised and articulate 19-year-old with long dark-brown hair and big brown eyes. Dressed casually in a red T-shirt and white shorts, Denise is telling me about her plans for the future. In September, she’ll enter Grossmont College, a two-year school in nearby El Cajon. After that, she intends to transfer to the University of California at San Diego to attend nursing school. There’s no doubt that Denise has a bright future ahead of her.

When Denise was 12, however, the chances of her eventually graduating from high school were practically nil. To say that she was “at risk” of dropping out would be an understatement.

At the time, Denise was living in a Saint Vincent DePaul shelter with her mother, her stepfather, her brother, and her sister. At 13, as she was about to enter high school, Denise became pregnant. She stayed in school as long as she could, somehow managing to hide her pregnancy until two weeks before the baby was born. On March 31, 1988, Denise gave birth to a son; she named him Michael. Six weeks later, her mother, too, gave birth to a baby boy.

With an infant to care for, Denise had little time for classes. “I was constantly in and out of school,” she tells me. “And when I was in school, I wasn’t making good grades. After I had my little boy, it was like I didn’t fit in with the high school crowd. I felt really out of place. I’d come back from a weekend, and everybody would be talking about the party they went to, and they’d ask, ‘What did you do?’ And I’d say, ‘Oh, I stayed home with the baby and did his laundry.’“

Denise’s situation at home went from bad to worse. First, her mother moved out of the house, leaving Denise and her substance-abusing stepfather to care for her son, her younger sister, and her baby stepbrother. Food was scarce, bills were going unpaid, and the family—such as it was—was about to be evicted from its home. “I felt as if I were in a huge hole and unable to get out,” she says.

On Aug. 12, 1990, the hole deepened; Denise’s mother was shot and killed in a domestic quarrel. “I was devastated and felt like life was over,” Denise recalls. She had hit bottom; there was no place to go but up. “I realized I had to start making a future for my son,” she says. “Being a single parent, there was no one to depend on. I saw that education was the only way I could give Michael and myself the life we never had.”

Denise and her son moved in with an aunt, who knew of an alternative education program run by Sweetwater Union High School District in Chula Vista. The learning center program had been created to give students who had dropped out of school the chance to come back and earn a diploma in a setting more suited to their individual needs. Students in the program attend school for just two hours a day; they take two or three courses at a time, working independently and setting their own pace as they go along.

The learning center program seemed tailor-made for someone like Denise, who wanted to return to school but couldn’t afford to put her baby in day care while she attended a comprehensive high school. So in October 1990, Denise, then 16, enrolled at Southwest High School Learning Center; she was two-and-a-half years behind in school. “It seemed impossible to graduate,” she says.

Denise liked the learning center right away. For one thing, there were other single mothers enrolled in the program. “It was just a lot more comfortable for me,” she says. “You could talk about doing the baby’s laundry if you wanted to! I felt more at ease.” Denise later transferred to Mar Vista High School Learning Center, where she so impressed her teachers that she was offered a coveted work-study position. Last March, she won a $1,000 scholarship from Learning Alternatives Resource Network, a California alternative education organization, after writing an essay about her life. The essay’s title: “From the Streets to Education.”

“I think that a lot of the students who are in here,” she says, obviously including herself, “if it weren’t for this program, they wouldn’t be in school, period. And they know that. So I think they’re thankful for it.”

“We’re very proud of her,” Nancy Cummins-Slovak, the center’s coordinator, says of Denise.

Clearly, Denise is a success story, the kind of student that administrators like to introduce to reporters looking for good copy. Tom Williams, the energetic director of alternative programs for Sweetwater Union High School District, had been anxious for me to meet Denise when he took me to see Mar Vista Learning Center. But although her story was remarkable, Denise wasn’t the only student I met who probably would have given up on school long ago were it not for the learning centers. And it wasn’t just the students who impressed me during my two-day visit to the centers; the teachers I met, most of whom were veterans, had the kind of energy one normally sees in those just beginning their careers. I wasn’t surprised to find out that about 25 visitors a month come to Sweetwater to see the learning centers firsthand, and that many school districts are beginning to replicate the innovative model.

Tom Williams, a beefy man with graying hair and a close-cropped mustache, apparently takes off his suit jacket as soon as he gets to work and doesn’t put it back on until it’s time to go home—as if the jacket somehow might slow him down. Seated at a conference table in his office, Williams gets visibly excited when he talks about the learning centers, punctuating his speech with hand gestures and occasionally using a red marking pen to write down key words on a white board. He likes to refer to students as “clients,” as when he says: “Always look at the changing needs of the clients. You’ve got to look at your delivery systems and stay on the cutting edge.”

At Sweetwater—which serves students in grades 9-12 in Chula Vista, National City, Bonita, Imperial Beach, Palm City, Nestor, San Ysidro, and even part of San Diego—the clients have changed a great deal over the years. Williams tells me that, in 1986, when the district’s first learning center opened, minority enrollment was about 35 percent; now, of the district’s 28,500 students, about 75 percent are minority, mostly Hispanic or Filipino. And many of them come from low-income households. San Diego County’s sagging economy hasn’t helped matters during the last several years. Studies have shown that the dropout rate among Hispanic students tends to go up as the economy gets worse; that’s because Hispanic students sometimes are pressured by their families into leaving school and going to work during hard times.

What all this means, Williams tells me, is that if you want to get dropouts back in school—or if you want to keep at-risk students from dropping out in the first place—the traditional classroom just won’t do. “When we started this program,” he says, “we threw away the book for a year and tried something entirely new, and we’ve been changing ever since.”

Former Sweetwater Superintendent Anthony Trujillo came up with the idea for the learning centers when he realized that many teachers actually benefited from having a certain number of students drop out of school every year. After all, when a kid stops coming to class, the teacher’s caseload gets a little bit lighter. “It was the institution that was creating the problem,” says Trujillo, who left Sweetwater in 1991 and is now superintendent of the Ysleta Independent School District in El Paso, Texas. (Last January, eight learning centers, modeled after Sweetwater’s, opened in the Texas district.)

Because of Trujillo, the Sweetwater learning centers operate on a fiscal model that encourages principals and teachers to keep students in school. Each center receives state funds based on student attendance. If the funds exceed the center’s expenses, the difference goes back into the center itself, thus providing teachers with an incentive to maintain good attendance. “They know that if a kid is not in that seat in front of that computer,” Williams says, “it’s costing us $19.26 a day. And the kids know that, too.”

About 1,400 of the district’s students are enrolled at the learning centers, six of which are located at high schools and two of which are located at vocational schools. The centers, which operate year-round, are open daily from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., with the 14-hour days divided into seven two-hour blocks. Students attend school for one block each day. Flexibility is built into the system; if a student works during the day, he or she can select an evening block. Several of the centers have on-site day care available for teen mothers. Eleventh and 12th graders in the program are required to complete 25 hours of community service per semester.

Each center has a coordinator, at least three teachers, a counselor, a computer aide, and a registrar. Because the teachers have a longer workday than most teachers, they typically earn $10,000 per year more than their traditional counterparts. The district gives each center a great deal of autonomy; staff members are urged to meet often to adjust the look and feel of their center to meet the needs of the students. “Each learning center has its own personality,” Williams says, “based on the people who are there.”

Each teacher oversees about 20 students per two-hour block of time. For one hour, the students work independently at the computers, using self-paced academic programs available through NovaNET, a satellite technology system created by University Communications Inc. of Westport, Conn. Students spend the other hour working from books, consulting a teacher when necessary. With the exception of science labs and foreign language classes, any course that is taught in the regular high schools is also available in the centers.

Students are expected to complete at least 15 hours of independent study at home each week. Once a week, students meet individually with their teachers for about an hour, getting immediate feedback on the work they are doing. “It’s much better than waiting and taking a final exam to see how you’re doing,” Williams says.

Because the learning center students work at their own pace, they can complete courses as quickly as they want to and in whatever order they prefer. The result has been that previously unmotivated students, bored by traditional teaching methods and overwhelmed by six concurrent courses, suddenly find themselves working harder than they’ve ever worked before. As one learning center teacher, Paul Hendricks, tells me: “A lot of these kids really are self-starters. They don’t want to sit and listen to six teachers and to have to go through all the hoops like in a traditional school. They come in here, and they know what they have to do.”

About 65 percent of the learning center students are officially classified as dropouts, which means they’ve been out of school for 45 days or more. The other 35 percent is made up of students who show a high risk of dropping out. The centers are considered “transitional,” that is, most of the centers’ students are expected eventually to return to regular classes.

Statistics show that the learning centers—along with Sweetwater’s other alternative education programs—seem to be keeping kids in school. In 1986, the district’s dropout rate was 32 percent. By the 1990-91 school year, the figure had decreased to 12.4 percent.

Hilltop High School Learning Center in Chula Vista is quiet when Tom Williams and I walk in. The center, a large room with carpet on the floor and student work on the walls, looks more like a library or an office than a classroom. Near the entrance is a small reception area with two chairs and a table offering copies of Newsweek and National Geographic, like you would find in a doctor’s office. This morning, about 30 students are working independently, either at the computers lined up against the walls or at the tables located in the center of the room.

Williams introduces me to Anita Miner, an attractive, no-nonsense woman who is the center’s coordinator, or lead teacher. “Every learning center has its own flavor,” Miner explains in a whisper. “We’re really big on quality work, perfect attendance, and punctuality. One thing I want my clients to have before they leave this center is self-discipline. You come to school every day. You get your homework done. You get here on time.”

I ask Miner how she and her two colleagues accomplish those goals. “Well, we just demand it,” she says. “We just say, ‘You come to school every day, or you’re bounced out of here.’ “

Miner excuses herself to conduct an “intake” with a new student, a transfer from Austria who has opted to finish the school year at the learning center rather than jumping into six separate classes already in progress. The girl, a straight-A student, will switch over to the regular high school in the fall.

I introduce myself to teacher Paul Hendricks, who is sitting at his desk going over math homework with 17-year-old Adrian Zendejas. Hendricks, dressed in blue jeans, white sneakers, and a blue-and-white striped dress shirt with no tie, hands me his card, which says on it: “Paul Hendricks. Teacher.” His desk, like the other teachers’, has a telephone on it.

Hendricks, 51, taught business classes for 23 years in a traditional classroom, but, when enrollment in business classes began to drop, he decided to try his hand at the learning center. Hendricks began teaching at Hilltop last September. “I came over here, and I didn’t know what to expect,” he tells me. “But it’s just great. It’s a different kind of experience.” He has since been asked to go back to teaching business, but he decided to stay put. “I love it,” he says. “I enjoy the hours, and the students are terrific.”

Adrian enrolled at the learning center about three months ago; he needed to make up some credits, and his friends had told him that the learning center was “pretty easy—if you work at it.” He specifically likes the fact that there are no teachers lecturing in front of a classroom. “Before, I never did homework,” he says. “Now I do.”

Hendricks jumps in: “And it’s quality homework. It took a while, though. Quite frankly, it took about a month to get Adrian straightened out. He was real belligerent. Which is normal, by the way. They’ve been so put to the test in the traditional school that they come in here ready to be belligerent and difficult. But after a few weeks, he fell in line, and now he’s a terrific student. He’s very motivated. He’s accomplishing things that he wants to accomplish.”

Learning center students, Hendricks tells me, must earn a minimum of one credit a month to stay in the program, but they can go as fast as they want. “They can do a credit a week if they like, if they’re really motivated,” he says. “And we’ve had students do that, especially the seniors. They see the light at the end of the tunnel, and they really start working.”

I couldn’t help but be impressed by what I saw at Hilltop. But I also couldn’t help but wonder if these students were missing out on some of the positive things that traditional classrooms have to offer. What about interaction with other students? What about critical-thinking skills? What about learning through discussion?

Anita Miner, who spent 25 years teaching biology in a regular classroom before moving to the learning center, seems well-aware of the program’s limitations. “They lose the enrichment of the classroom,” she admits. “They lose the discussion, the interconnections, the teacher’s personality. Here, they only have one teacher.” But, she adds, “I think learning centers should be temporary for children because regular school is the goal. Let’s face it—the regular classroom is a lot more challenging. Six different teachers, six different classes. They’ve got to relate; they’ve got to be social. Here, as you look around, these kids are on task. There’s not a lot of socialization. In the regular classroom, they have to work cooperatively, they have to learn how to manipulate equipment in the science lab.”

The following day, I visit Sweetwater High School Learning Center in National City. A one-story gray stucco building with red trim, the center—with its drop ceiling, fluorescent lights, and office dividers—seems even more businesslike on the inside than Hilltop. Although it’s another hot day, the center is air-conditioned cool as the students quietly go about their work. About the only sound I hear is the gentle tapping of fingers on computer keyboards.

Sweetwater was the district’s first learning center, and it is now the largest, serving 320 full-time students. One of them, 18-year-old Annalou Balat, is sitting at a table taking a physical science test. She transferred to the learning center last October, after she began falling behind in several regular classes. The learning center has given her the opportunity to get back on track and—if all goes well—to graduate on time.

Annalou praises the program. “You can work independently,” she says. “If you need to ask questions, you can go up to the teachers and ask them. You can work on your own, but you get more attention from the teachers.”

On a typical day, Annalou does her homework in the mornings before going to the learning center at noon. When her block ends two hours later, she has time to get to her job as a receptionist at a photographic studio. She plans to attend Southwestern College, a two-year school in Chula Vista, after she graduates.

The learning center, she says, “motivates you to do more work. In regular school, you have a certain amount of work to do. In this kind of school, you can go beyond the limit if you want.” Today, Annalou arrived early because “I wanted to do some stuff that I didn’t do last week.”

Despite her praise, Annalou doesn’t hesitate when I ask her if she misses the social aspects of a comprehensive high school. “Yes,” she responds. “Lunch breaks, spending time with your friends—those kinds of things. Here, you can’t really talk much because you have to work, so you don’t really get to know the people around you. You know their names, but you don’t really know them.” (Although the learning centers are considered part of the high schools with which they are affiliated, the students are not supposed to “hang out” on campus before or after their two-hour block.)

Ricardo Dennys, 17, was on the verge of dropping out of high school in Monterey, Calif., when his family moved to Chula Vista. He originally wanted to give Sweetwater High School a try, but he was so far behind that he was urged to enroll at the learning center. Now, Ricardo, a big kid with a round face and short black hair, is thriving. Last fall, he was offered the job of answering phones at the center for two hours a day at $4.25 an hour. So now he comes to school each day at 7 a.m., completes his two-hour block, then answers the phone until 11 a.m. After that he goes home and does homework.

As we talk, the other students, who have just completed their two-hour blocks, punch out on a time clock, like factory workers clocking out at the end of the day. The allusion to work is not accidental; one of the goals of the learning centers is to teach students to be responsible.

“I seem to like it here much better than the regular school,” Ricardo tells me. “I do better here, much better. I had only one credit when I came down here from Monterey. Now, I have 13. I’m more interested in school now. Before, for one semester, I only went to school for 10 days.”

Ricardo, who was born in Mexico but grew up in California, says his parents are especially pleased with his progress. “They’re very impressed,” he says. “Very impressed. Before, they told me, ‘You’re going to be a dropout just like your brother. We don’t want you to do that.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not going to do that. I’m going to graduate.’ And now I’m keeping my promise.”

Clearly, Ricardo—a special education student—has benefited from the learning center’s emphasis on individual attention. But what will happen once he returns to the regular classroom? Will he run into trouble again? Should he be allowed to remain at the center until he graduates?

Andy Sanchez thinks so. “It’s a shame that we have to mainstream the kids back to the comprehensive high school,” Sanchez, one of Sweetwater’s two coordinators and a longtime learning center teacher, tells me. “I mean, we have to do that, by order of the superintendent.... But a lot of kids want to stay here because they have teachers who really work with them. They know that these teachers care about them.”

Sanchez, a handsome 42-year-old who bears a slight resemblance to Geraldo Rivera, believes the learning center method of teaching and learning is suitable for all students, not just dropouts or potential dropouts. “I really think this is the way teaching is going to be in the near future, and, by that, I mean in 10 years,” he tells me. “It’s a shame we have to wait that long. Our students do more work in one week here than they do in a month at a comprehensive high school. And that’s not just what we say, it’s what the kids say.”

I ask Sanchez if he could ever go back to teaching in a regular classroom. He begins to answer before I even finish the question. “No, no,” he tells me. “Wild horses couldn’t get me out of here.”

Later, back at Hilltop Learning Center, I watch as Anita Miner confers with Shalees Bertine, a pretty 17-year-old with thin blond hair. Shalees had been taking honors classes at Hilltop High School when she moved out of her parents’ house to live with her boyfriend. Against her parents’ wishes, the couple decided to get married. Then Shalees dropped out of school. “So many things were going on,” she tells me. Eventually, Shalees, who had considered getting a GED, enrolled at Hilltop Learning Center. “A high school diploma is so much better,” she says. “I mean, you go to school for all this time, and then you just waste it on a GED? I don’t think so.”

Shalees had just started at Hilltop last fall when she got into a car accident, injuring her back. She was forced to stay at home until March; since then, she’s been making up for lost time, working hard to graduate as soon as she can. It doesn’t help that she’s three months pregnant and clearly feeling the effects of morning sickness.

“But even with all these events going on in her life,” Miner says, “she’s going to graduate. There’s no doubt in my mind. And she’s sick as a dog every day!”

Today, Miner is going over Shalees’ physical science homework. Shalees has opted to do the amount of work to earn her a C, although it’s obvious she could be doing A work if she wanted to. “I just want to get my diploma and get on with my life,” she says.

I ask Shalees if she’s been happy at the learning center. “Yes,” she tells me. “I like it a lot. I think it’s good for a lot of students. I think it’s how school should be. Why should it take longer than it has to to graduate?”

When the conference ends, I ask Miner if she could ever go back to teaching in a traditional classroom. “If they said, ‘You have to,’ I’d go back,” she says. “But I would really miss this environment. Change is the most important thing to keep teachers stimulated, motivated, and refreshed. I had really bright kids in biology; I was really proud of them. But here in the learning center, teaching the kids self-discipline, homework skills, punctuality—these are life skills. I feel I’m touching the bone a little bit more than when I taught biology.”

Tom Williams is telling me a story: He and a friend, who had just been named principal of Chula Vista Junior High School, were going through some old files when they came across a copy of the school’s master schedule from 1947. They compared it with the current schedule and realized that, other than a few minor changes, it had hardly changed at all.

“The breaks were the same length, lunch was the same length,” he says. “We sort of chuckled to ourselves and thought, ‘It hasn’t changed much since 1947, but the students have.’ And that’s what everyone is coming to terms with. Things have changed quite a bit since the ‘50s and the ‘60s.”

Change, of course, is a touchy subject, especially in education. “It’s hard to break down barriers,” Williams says. “Change is very uncomfortable to a lot of people.” When the learning center program was first proposed, Williams tells me, many in the district resisted the idea. “They asked, ‘Why put so much effort into these kids?’ “

But Williams and his “clients” have proved the naysayers wrong. The learning center approach to education may or may not be the wave of the future, but it certainly appears to work for a number of students who might otherwise have given up on the traditional methods of delivery.

Last year, Hector Najar, a student at Southwest High School Learning Center, summed up his experience this way:

“For some reason, it is widely believed that the learning center students are nothing more than dull-witted, destructive deviants who have been gathered and separated from the rest of society to prevent contamination.

“Sorry folks, wrong. Although a student may have strayed from the normal path taken to graduation, this does not necessarily mean that he is lost. The student might be taking another route. As strange as it may seem, some students do not fit into the carefully organized structure of socalled ‘regular’ schools....

“The learning center gives a student the chance to break away from all of this. Yes, it does contain its own set of rules, but they are easier to follow for two hours than for seven. The relationship between teacher and student is more personal. Learning center instructors actually seem to care about what you do after school as much as they care about what you do in it.

“The learning center provides students with an alternative way of reaching educational goals.”

Tom Williams couldn’t have said it better himself.

Vol. 04, Issue 09, Pages 20-25

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