Los Angeles: Epicenter of High School Dropouts — Or Are They Pushed?


African American Drop Out Rate
6816_202007100560_150971990560_4314796_4318222_n.jpgOver a million US students who start high school this year won't finish. In Los Angeles, only about half of entering students graduate, earning the city the designation by Education Week [1] as a "dropout epicenter." But the National Dignity in Schools Campaign [2] reframes the issue: most kids who don't finish haven't "dropped out." They've been "pushed out" by a culture of zero-tolerance, punishment, and removal that disproportionately affects children of color.
In Los Angeles, African American students are two to three times more likely to be suspended than students of other ethnicities. School police in low-income neighborhoods hand out truancy and tardiness tickets-something most middle class parents have never heard of - that carry exorbitant fines mounting into the hundreds of dollars. If unpaid, these turn into arrest warrants and divert young people out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

From October 11 through the 17th, as part of the Dignity in Schools National Week of Action, events in 16 cities throughout the US are calling attention to the crisis and promoting alternatives to suspensions, expulsions, and the criminalization of youth. Here in Los Angeles on Tuesday, October 12, a coalition of community organizations held a day-long information session in front of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board [3] on Beaudry Avenue. Young people, mostly from the Labor/Community Strategy Center [4], decorated the chain link fence across the street with art and posters while parents, students, former students, and their advocates offered personal testimony and called for full implementation of School-wide Positive Behavior Support (SWPBS) - the new approach to discipline that the LAUSD Board itself mandated back in March 2007.

Districts around the country that have fully implemented this model have seen up to a 60% reduction in disciplinary problems and suspensions. The LAUSD schools that have put it into practice have seen transformation in the school environment. But District 7, in South Los Angeles, arguably the district where youth are most in need of positive behavior support, has lagged far behind according to "Redefining Dignity in Our Schools," the recently released report based on research by the grassroots organization Community Asset Development Re-defining Education [5] (CADRE), in collaboration with Mental Health Advocacy Services, Inc., and Public Counsel Law Center [6]. Markham Middle School, for example, entirely failed to implement the policy and also had the highest rate of suspensions. South LA schools continue to have more police, detectives, probation officers, and canine patrols than counselors. (To download the full report or executive summary on-line, please go here [7])


012810_SchoolPolice_008_300.jpgSWPBS relies, instead, on the consistent teaching, modeling, reinforcement of appropriate behavior and discourages the reliance on punitive discipline. Intervention is preferred to exclusion. And parents are brought in and welcomed as collaborators.
Gomez landed at last at the Youth Justice Coalition's charter school, Free LA High School, where gang intervention workers and counselors set her on the road to success. Sandoval, calling himself "a victim of the school to jail track," also eventually found his way to Free LA High where, he says, "They never gave up on me, even when I gave up on myself. We need motivation, not punishment."
Arriaza has seen what previously stigmatized youth can do. "We see them pull their grades up and graduate. But we can't keep putting out fires. There aren't enough advocates. Change has to come from above."
We should all care about this, said Laura Faer, attorney with Public Counsel. The status quo "costs all of us a fortune in futures lost" while the alternative - SWPBS - "makes teachers happier and makes schools safer."