South Los Angeles fights to bring absent students back to class

IMG_2697By Greg Asciutto

Community leaders and educators hit the streets of South Los Angeles on Jan. 24 to encourage chronically absent students to return to the classroom and earn their diplomas.

Student Recovery Day, hosted by Fremont High School in the unincorporated community of Florence, was the latest chapter in a four-year-old Los Angeles Unified School District initiative to improve the districtwide graduation rate of 66 percent. While that number has improved in recent years, it is still significantly behind the state average of 73.7 percent and national average of 74.7 percent.

“You are important to us, and we want and need you to come back,” LAUSD board member Steve Zimmer said at a morning press event. “You can get a diploma, you can still move on to success. It’s never too late.”

In collaboration with the Community Coalition of South Los Angeles, the California Endowment and Brotherhood Crusade, LAUSD officials led roughly 50 volunteers to the homes of Fremont students who have attended 87 percent or less of schooldays this academic year.

When successful, the teams spoke with the guardians of the students, persuading them to get their children back on track. But more frequently, volunteers saw firsthand that for many, missing school is more of a necessity than a choice.

“In some cases where students want to come back … they’re getting bombarded with problems,” said volunteer and local resident Teri McGee. Of the 10 homes McGee visited, only three contacts were made. In those cases, she said, two students suffered from chronic illnesses and another had just had a baby.

While the district offers plans to accommodate students in all situations, LAUSD officials said many estranged students believe they are lacking too many credits to go through the trouble of trying to graduate before they lose academic eligibility at the age of 22.

“Our students are impacted in so many different ways,” said Fremont Principal Pedro Avalos. “They lose interest in the school, and that’s another reason why we’re personalizing instruction here, so we can talk to the students, figure out what’s going on and have the preventative measures to stop that.”

Though past Student Recovery Days have been annual and districtwide, Fremont plans to partner with Community Coalition to offer this outreach at least once each academic semester. The heightened efforts indicate the importance, to community members and LAUSD administrators alike, of getting each one of this school’s 2,300 students to graduate.

In 2009, Fremont became a subject of controversy when its staff and instructional models were gutted in a “reconstitution” effort to curb dismal graduation rates. While 90 percent of the 2013 senior class graduated less than four years after the school hit the reset button, the four-year cohort graduation rate still dwells at 51 percent.

That number is particularly alarming for a student body that is 91 percent Latino, as the national graduation rate for the subgroup is 68 percent.

“We have a lot at stake to make sure that is a success,” said Community Coalition Vice President Alberto Renata. “We want to be able to demonstrate that when the community is involved with teachers and schools, we can actually make schools great places.”

Since beginning the Student Recovery Day program four years ago, LAUSD has recovered more than 5,000 students districtwide who went on to earn their diplomas, Zimmer said. The district will organize the next event at the start of the 2014-2015 academic year.

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