May 22, 2009

Commentary:

Examining the South Bay’s Latino Dropout Crisis

By Vince Vasquez

Education administrators at the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) are now taking the limelight for achieving what new preliminary state statistics indicate is a dramatic cut in the number of high school dropouts. Though this is good news for many district parents, it belies a growing “Latino achievement gap” that, if not closed, will sink efforts to share our region’s economic prosperity.

According to official data released this month from the California Department of Education, the San Diego Unified School District reduced the number of high school drop outs by 490 students in the 2007-2008 academic year, slashing the 4-year drop out rate by 37%. In all, 24 of the 34 reporting mainstream SDUSD high schools saw lower year-to-year drop out numbers, culminating into one of the lowest rates in the county, and far below that of the state. It’s clear that SDUSD stands out as a success story that too few schools in our region shared.

Of the 25 high school districts in San Diego County that reported to the state, nearly half (12) saw a year-to-year rise in overall student drop outs. However, aggregating all high district school drop out data results in an overall county dropout tally of 6,126, which is six students more than the previous school year. Without further examination, this figure would suggest that little has changed substantively in drop out trends, but a closer looks reveals that local Latino teens are falling further behind in the race to Graduation Day.

State data indicates that the number of Hispanic high school dropouts in San Diego County actually increased by 156 between 2006-07 and 2007-08, becoming one of only two ethnic groups to have a year-to-year rate increase (African Americans saw a small rate increase of 12 students). Though Latinos make up less than half of all students in San Diego County public schools (44%), they composed more than half (56%) of all county drop-outs in 2007-08, a rate that only one year before was 53%. Most alarming was the 44% year-to-year increase of Latino dropouts in the South Bay’s Sweetwater Union High School District (SUHSD), which serves more than 20,000 Hispanic high school age-students from Chula Vista to San Ysidro. Sweetwater suffered a triple digit increase (383) in its overall dropout tally, 68% of which were Latino students. Understanding the student retention challenges at Sweetwater is important, as it is one of the fastest-growing districts and has the largest Latino student population in the county, two demographic trends which every school district must be prepared to address in the coming decades.

Compared to the rest of the county, SUHSD (which is 73% Latino) has a significant number of large unwieldy high schools, an all-too common institutional experience for young Hispanic Americans. In a 2005 report, the Pew Hispanic Center noted that the great majority of Latino students in the United States attend “mega-schools” – the 10% of the country’s largest public high schools that exceed student populations of 1,838. This trend is reflected regionally; 82% of all Latino public high school students in San Diego County are currently enrolled at one of 50 mega schools in our region, 40% of which are located South of Interstate Highway 8. In the Sweetwater Union High School District, 11 of its 12 standard public high schools easily meet the description of a mega-school, including three schools within an eye-lash of serving student populations of 3,000; in SDUSD, only 27% of all mainstream public high schools classify as mega-schools, from which parents can opt-out their children through a simple transfer process. Latino students are also more likely to generally attend poorer public schools with a worse student to teacher ratio than Caucasian and African-American pupils, and thus, the common experience of Latino youth is to have less personalized teacher interaction and inferior resources.

A preliminary analysis of state data finds that in the 2007-08 school year, Sweetwater high school classrooms averaged a 24:1 student-to-teacher ratio, compared to the 20:1 ratio at SDUSD high schools. Incremental changes have been made in South Bay schools in recent years, but too often the reality is a one-size-fits-all approach to higher education. Taking a closer look at other school districts finds that expanding the “school choice” of parents and students can improve the prospects for higher education in San Diego.

One path towards greater school choice is through charter schools. Charter schools are similar to standard tuition-free public schools, but education administrators have greater powers to hire and fire employees, establish student policies and curriculum, set school hours, and manage operating costs. By also setting the enrollment standards for students, charter schools create a culture of higher expectations and a place of belonging, which is too often missing at large, traditional high schools. Studies have consistently shown that this institutional flexibility has been instrumental in increasing accountability, reducing bureaucracy and fostering innovation across the country. Many have also been effective at developing classroom experiences that improve high school graduation rates; the UCSD Preuss Charter School, which enrolls 758 low-income students and is 60% Latino, reported zero drop outs in 2007-2008. In fact, the overwhelming majority of SDUSD charter high schools have lower Latino dropout rates and overall dropout rates than the overall district averages, a success which the South Bay could share, if its elected school officials chose to.

Currently, Sweetwater residents have only one chartered high school, MAAC Community Charter School, but it focuses on at-risk students who have already dropped out of school. Another school, High Tech High Chula Vista, which opened its doors in fall 2007 and is modeled from a highly-popular educational philosophy, is not officially apart of the district, and has yet to graduate its first full class of students.

Another approach to school choice is to create “small schools,” new educational environments that cultivate strong teacher-student relationships and individualized scholastic attention. When exceptionally great strides are taken to change the organizational culture of a school, it can lead to higher student performance and retention, such as the 38% graduation rate increase seen in New York City in 2007 after 12 large high schools reopened as 47 small schools. Small school reforms have been implemented locally; with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, three historically large schools within SDUSD (San Diego High, Kearny High and Crawford High) were divided into fourteen smaller schools in 2004, and the results are in. Taken individually, 57% of these “small schools” have Latino drop-out rates that are lower than the district average; though this success is not stunning, it indicates that Latino students have at least an opportunity to participate in higher-performing classrooms in the absence of new multi-million dollar schools.

Dramatic success with either small schools or charter reforms is not guaranteed, nor in many cases is it within reach. As Bill Gates himself stated in his 2009 Annual Letter, the schools that failed to make a dent in graduation rates or student achievement “tended to be the schools that did not take radical steps to change the culture, such as allowing the principal to pick the team of teachers or change the curriculum.” It will take true classroom pioneers and undaunted professionals to change the state of South Bay public schools, and when they do emerge, they are deserving of the full support of parents and teachers. Stronger leadership is needed in our county to advance school choice today, as the future of our workforce and the well-being of our young people depend on it.

No parent, no matter what ethnic background, should be forced to send their child to a failing school and sentence them to an unproductive adulthood. By working together and setting higher goals for all, our community can achieve more scholastic success for the benefit of every student.

Vince Vasquez is the senior policy analyst at the San Diego Institute for Policy Research.

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