School of Hard Knocks

Number Discrepancies

But schools are under increasing pressure to prepare students for college, not wage-earning jobs, and they cannot control the social breakdown and hardship that alienates poor kids from the education system. This year, the state Legislature is tightening TEA accountability standards for public schools by raising the minimum TAAS passing rate and requiring schools to report the scores of students in special education. Apathetic students and low achievers are a thorn in administrators' sides, especially since TEA punishes schools that let too many fall by the wayside. But TEA's system is designed to let schools off the hook for dropouts who say they plan to pursue a GED -- an exception which contributes heavily to the discrepancy between TEA's official dropout rate and the actual number of freshmen who never reach the graduation stage. TEA calculated that the statewide high school completion rate in 1995 was 88%, but that figure drops considerably, down to 77.5%, when only "traditional graduates" are counted as completers. And it's impossible to know how many kids are scratched off dropout lists who subsequently fail to attend any alternative education program.


9th Grade: 700

10th Grade: 350

12th Grade: 230
The social reality that TEA's dropout reporting system hides is the degree to which public schools' prominence in kids' lives has eroded. Schools have taken steps to adjust to the chaotic situations of many poor teens, and alternative educational pathways, including self-guided and school-to-work programs, have helped bridge the gap between students' need for hands-on learning and the state's requirement that they pass advanced English and geometry. Once students earn enough credits to enter these programs -- around their junior year -- their likelihood of dropping out is considerably diminished. But a lot of kids never make it that far. Most of the dropouts are freshmen and sophomores who are over-age for their grade level. Every year, one in three AISD ninth-graders flunk too many classes to become sophomores, and at Johnston High, nearly half of the 600-700 entering freshmen will never make it to the next grade level (see chart at right). Mjos says that the frustration of repeating ninth-grade classes with younger students even less serious about schoolwork than themselves pushes many kids out the door. "Those are the kids I feel like we don't have a handle on; there's nothing in place in the school district for them." says Mjos. "They want school to be important, but ... they don't want to be in a traditional school."

"Man, they were running around playing tag and stuff, you know?" says James Amidon, 18, who left Crockett High School when he twice failed to pass ninth grade. "Shaving creaming each other, egging each other -- it just gets worse and worse when you [repeat a grade]."

The Freshman Slump

The pressures of high school are a shock to many teenagers. They leave the relative security of middle school, where teachers are responsible for smaller groups and better able to assist struggling students, and land in giant high schools where the work is harder and help less plentiful.

"The responsibility for student performance is so much more in the student's hands [in high school], because Johnny's teachers may never talk to one another about his performance again," says TEA curriculum coordinator David Anderson. Many 14-year-olds aren't ready for that much responsibility, and they pay a high price for failure when the distractions of teen social life override their determination to master new and difficult subjects at school.

"The real brick wall is ninth grade; that's a real sorting and selecting period. It's a lot more fun to have a girlfriend than study for tests that they can't do," says Vicki Baldwin, principal of Gonzalo Garza Independence High School. Baldwin's school is designed to give dropouts a second chance at a diploma, but like so many of AISD's alternative programs, it's open only to students who have completed their sophomore year. Kids who don't catch the first rung are often left with no alternative but to leave AISD for a GED program, a choice which research shows seldom leads to the same career opportunities.

"What the high-school diploma says to the employer is, 'I can go the distance.' A GED doesn't say that," says Baldwin. Mjos daily witnesses the pain teens undergo as the stigma of failing high school descends upon them. They break down crying when he visits them at home, not knowing what to do. Mjos counsels them on alternatives and leaves them packets of GED program applications. "With all the pressures we put on kids today, a lot of them just don't make good decisions," says Mjos. "They're just not ready to make those decisions yet."

It is always tempting to blame teenagers for bringing academic problems on themselves, for being lazy, irresponsible, irresolute. Almost no educator would disagree that kids often screw up needlessly, and neither would most dropouts themselves. After all, lots of kids with difficult lives persevere to the end. How much should schools concern themselves with those who give up? Well, that depends on whether all of those who try hard, who prove their determination to finish school, are given a fair chance to succeed. Unfortunately, educators and scholars say, students who perform like troupers may get no further than those who goof off because of inflexible policies and testing. The education system is designed to reward results, they say, not effort.

The Minority Factor

In the early Nineties, sociologists Harriett Romo and Tony Falbo completed a four-year study of 100 Hispanic students attending AISD high schools. In their subsequent book, titled Latino High School Graduation, the authors describe a system which projects negative messages at minority students deemed unfit for college, neglects to challenge them intellectually, and does little to support those who try to overcome their academic shortcomings. Romo, a former schoolteacher who today teaches at the University of Texas, says state politicians are far more invested in raising academic standards than preventing dropouts. But from the perspective of low-achievers, Romo says, standardized testing is a form of punishment, and the negative attitudes directed at them by administrators and teachers, whose reputations are staked on students' performance, further undermine their self-esteem.

"Professional educators have been numbed by the pressures to do well," Romo says. When Romo began research on her book, the percentage of Hispanic freshmen in the state who were over-age for their grade level was four times higher than that of whites. Today, Hispanics are retained nearly three times as frequently as whites in ninth grade, and well over half of the total freshmen who flunk each year in Texas are Hispanic.

Carmen Cardenas

Carmen Cardenas builds houses while she studies through A.I.L.'s Casa Verde program.

photograph by John Anderson

Carmen Cardenas became a dropout statistic at age 16 after failing to pass ninth grade for the second time. The oldest child of a single working mother, Carmen says she missed too many classes staying home with her brother, a toddler with severe asthma who frequently had to be taken to the hospital. Cardenas -- now attending the AIL charter school downtown, where she expects to complete her diploma in less than two years -- says she made A's in her coursework, even came to school on Saturdays to make up tests, but couldn't get her absences excused. TEA policy requires teachers to flunk students who miss too many classes.

Cardenas, a baby-faced 19-year-old with straight hair hanging past her shoulders, is already a veteran member of the workforce, having worked stints as a nursing attendant and fast-food worker. The latter job began just after school and kept her up until one in the morning on school nights. Her family of five needed the money, Carmen says. She had always planned to go to college on scholarship, but after passing only three classes in two years of high school, she gave up. One particularly depressing moment is burned in her memory. After doing well in an advanced placement course and making up work she had missed because her home had burned down, Carmen hoped for a break. "I remember, I thought the teacher was going to say, 'Congratulations for making a good grade, but maybe you should improve your attendance.' Instead she told me that I was wasn't going to pass the class and that I'd probably end up dropping out of school. ... It made me mad ... but it turned out she was right."

Legislators love to boast of improving schools' accountability by getting tough on truancy and prescribing students batteries of tests, but the results of such rigid, "tough love" measures don't necessarily make schools work better for kids. If it's true that kids sometimes fail the system, it's just as true that schools are failing them. Teens are getting their noses rubbed in abstract subjects they have trouble relating to while being offered little that gives them a sense of accomplishment. Carmen's 17-year-old sister, for instance, has a learning disability that so far has prevented her from passing the ninth grade. Reading and writing frustrate her, but at home she enjoys designing clothes. Her school, however, offers no outlet to expand this interest, whereas Carmen is able to both work and study Emily Dickinson through the American Institute for Learning program. Meanwhile, AISD has in recent years mandated that all ninth-graders take algebra, disposing of more basic math courses. And algebra, as any educator knows, is teens' number-one nightmare.

One exasperated high-school math teacher who would only speak anonymously says that requiring all students to pass algebra is about as quixotic as requiring them all to play the violin. Teachers are rebuked as elitist for suggesting that not all students belong in advanced math courses, he says, but kids don't learn what isn't relevant to them. "Kids who could give a flip about graphing a line might be terrific cabinetmakers," he says, "and if they later discover they need algebra to build cabinets, I guarantee you they'll learn it then. ... But we're cramming things down their throats that they have no use for."

At Johnston, Mjos would love to see ninth-graders planing doors, cutting fabric, or spinning clay pots -- anything but slouching around the bus stop. "We need to give kids who aren't going to college a reason to come to school, too," says Mjos. "They need that structure and discipline." Under former principal Montenegro, Johnston High initiated a variety of programs to try and reach potential dropouts. Adjunct classes were offered to kids who needed more personal attention, tutorial outreach was expanded, and a "fundamentals of technology" program was added. The school also created preparatory summer sessions for incoming ninth-graders, hiring Johnston High's own students to mentor the new kids. Johnston's dropout rate plummeted during those years, and the school sloughed off its low-performing status. But when Montenegro left, so did the impetus to hunt down the grant money that made such programs possible.

Montenegro, now superintendent of the San Marcos Consolidated Independent School District, says the Austin district gives principals the freedom to initiate creative programs, but principals may have to hustle the money themselves. Principals "can do great things," says Montenegro, but seeking grants "is the kind of work you have to do if you want to augment your programs. ... If you stay dependent on the resources available through the district, you're not going to be as effective." Johnston has not had a long-term principal since Montenegro left in 1995, and the summer program, called Project Pass, was canceled. The school is currently waiting on funding from the district to resurrect a similar summer program, but other initiatives, including a "school within a school" for over-age students who want to buckle down in smaller classes, have gone nowhere. School-to-work options at Johnston have expanded, but interim principal James Wilson says unfortunately the school can only afford to open them to upperclassmen, much as the younger students need them.

What Is AISD Doing?

The school district has experimented with various programs to prevent and recover dropouts throughout the decade, but except for the Delta program, a computer-based, self-learning alternative, none of the initiatives have taken hold district-wide -- including Project Pass, which AISD's program evaluation office deemed promising. The special services are expensive, and require constant grant applications to keep them running.

Perhaps the largest disservice AISD did to its at-risk student population, however, was disbanding its former Office of Research Evaluation in 1995, the office which produced district dropout reports far more telling than the TEA accounting system. The last dropout report ORE produced, in 1994, pegged AISD's dropout rate during the 1992-93 school year at just under 10% annually, and at 23% over four years. TEA numbers, in contrast, showed a rate of less than 2% annually, and 10% longitudinally. The primary difference: ORE required stricter documentation than TEA to prove that students were continuing their educations. District officials have claimed the office was merged with other divisions to save money, but former ORE directors all contend that dismembering the office, which reported its findings directly to the superintendent's office and board members, was a power play by then-Deputy Superintendent Kay Psencik to stem the flow of potentially disquieting information.

"When it came time to kill ORE, everybody clapped, because we were the ones showing where the warts were," says former ORE research analyst Mario Sanchez.

School officials will contend that theirtime is better spent focusing on kids who want to learn rather than those who don't. "How much time do you want administrators to spend tracking students down instead of educating them?" offers TEA associate commissioner Criss Cloudt. And Johnston Liberal Arts Academy director Paula Tyler says schools can't possibly verify what happens to every student who disappears from the classroom; in the case of older students, she says, schools are better off accepting that teens' decision to leave is beyond their control. "This is the path an older student has chosen, and it might be expedient for the district to accept that there isn't much more the district can do at that point," she says.

"People steal away in the middle of the night, and none of us were trained to be private investigators," agrees Baldwin. "You want to hold us responsible for that? Come on." Still, if the district doesn't at least acknowledge the scope of its dropout problem, it risks averting its eyes from the kids pedaling as hard as they can who only need an encouraging nod and occasional push to top the hill. Legislators may claim that kids need to buck up for more advanced courses to compete in the job market, but for two or three tender years, what some kids need most is a reason, any reason, to come back to school just one more day.

Reagan High School freshman Donald Edmonson is navigating that unstable period in his life right now. Quiet and impressionable, wearing gold, button-shaped earings, Donald wants to be like his friends and support himself with a job. He's started skipping classes, but with help from counselors furnished by Communities in Schools, a nonprofit that intervenes in the lives of younger students at risk of dropping out, he's getting by. He's applied for a position at Office Depot, and says he wishes he could go to school just part time. His mother, he says, has agreed to let him work. "I hear my parents say every day, 'kids these days think money grows on trees,' and I want to make it so I can buy my own stuff ... the real way, the right way," says Donald. Whether his teachers, counselors, and mother can keep him in class is uncertain at this point, but one thing is for sure -- Donald is open to advice and suggestions, and he wants to be somebody. Catch his eye, get his attention, and he'll join you. That can be such a difficult thing for a large urban school to do.

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High School, Dropout Rates, Steve Mjos, Johnston High School, Ged, Gonzalo Garza Independence High School, American Institute Of Learning, Vick Baldwin.

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