When Nancy Meza arrived at Roosevelt High School, she quickly made 30 friends among her classmates at the sprawling Boyle Heights campus. On Thursday, as her senior class gathered for its final photo, only four of those friends showed up. Most of the missing had dropped out.
"It really struck me today," said Nancy, 17. "All of my friends are gone."
Roosevelt's senior photo was a sobering reflection of a Harvard University study released this week spotlighting the Los Angeles Unified School District's alarming graduation rates. The district was among the worst in the state, with just 39% of Latinos and 47% of African Americans graduating in 2002.
Behind the grim statistics are stories of dropouts — and those who defy the odds — at inner-city schools across Los Angeles, schools like
Roosevelt and Garfield, where the majority of the students are Latino.
Students talk about classrooms so overflowing that they must sit on the floor and follow lessons without textbooks. Some talk about what they believe is a dumbed-down curriculum.
Others say their non-English-speaking immigrant parents can't help them with classwork and financial pressures make dropping out seem like the only option.
There were times when Garfield High School senior Jonathan Perez, 17, wanted to give up. Jonathan failed algebra after five different teachers — including four substitutes — rotated weekly during one semester. He also failed French, after spending a semester sitting on the floor because the classroom was overcrowded.
Jonathan spent one week trying to persuade his counselor to let him re-take French — a week in which he didn't go to class. The counselor wanted to place him in graphic arts instead. Many of his friends faced similar challenges. Ten of his friends had dropped out by his senior year.
Like many of her Roosevelt friends, Nancy considered dropping out. Her family had been evicted from their home. They moved from hotel to hotel. Some days, she commuted two hours on a public bus to get to school. She missed two months of classes. It seemed finding a job to help support her family would have been easier.
But Nancy persevered.
Two of her brothers did not. One skipped classes he thought were too boring, she said. Both cut classes to eat or hang out with friends.
"It took the school a whole semester to inform my mom that my brothers were missing school," Nancy said. "This happens to a lot of students. Next thing you know, they're high school dropouts."
Berhane Azage, a 17-year-old senior at Manual Arts High in South Los Angeles, said educators need to explain to students the importance of staying in school.
"A really good personal approach would help," especially when classes are overcrowded and teachers are overburdened, Berhane said.
Failing high schools have been the subject of increased local and national debate among school officials and policy leaders in recent months. The focus has been on creating smaller campuses and college preparation programs as possible solutions to high dropout rates and low test scores.
In East and South Los Angeles, nearly 500 parents and 1,000 students recently launched a campaign to improve access to college courses, add counselors and provide more tutoring. They believe more students will finish high school and go to college if they are enrolled in more classes with a rigorous curriculum and receive more academic support.
United Students, based in East Los Angeles, recently surveyed 1,600 students at Roosevelt and Garfield and found that 77% on both campuses wanted to attend a four-year university.
When Gabriela Perez was a freshman at Garfield, she believed she would attend a four-year college when she graduated. But she failed English that year after spending a semester under rotating substitutes. She also failed history after spending two months without a textbook.
Gabriela wanted to make up her lost credits, but instead her counselor placed her in a "service" class, in which she organized textbooks, decorated the school for holidays and on some days "just sat there." The counselor also placed her in a "tutoring" class, in which she ran errands for teachers.
During Gabriela's junior year, a counselor accidentally placed her in remedial English. When the school realized she was in the wrong class, the counselor tried to place her in a Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps program. Gabriela refused.
She spent the next two weeks missing class by waiting at her counselor's office. Gabriela wanted to take science. Ten counselors serve Garfield's 5,200 students, so the office was crowded. When she finally got in, her counselor said science was full.
Gabriela decided not to enroll in a sixth class period that semester, and instead went home early each day.
After she graduates this year, she will attend East Los Angeles Community College. But she wishes she had received the counseling, support and classes to attend a four-year university.
Gabriela said her immigrant parents, who did not graduate from high school or college, cannot help her either.
"They can't help me with my classes," she said. "They can't help me with my homework."
Given such challenges, it is no surprise to Gabriela — a member of United Students — that so many drop out.
If the school automatically placed them on a more challenging college track, she thinks more would graduate.
"Change the expectations for students," Gabriela said, "so students will be expected to do more."
Jonathan Perez, another Garfield student, agreed.
"Any class I failed is because I wouldn't do the work," he said. "It was so easy. When it came to testing, I got A's. I wasn't being challenged."
Communities for Educational Equity, a group of students and parents across Los Angeles, is asking the L.A. school district to adopt a mandatory college-track curriculum for all students.
After the San Jose Unified School District adopted a similar curriculum in 2000, its graduation rates rose from 73% in 1999 to 79% in 2003.
In Los Angeles, "students are dropping out because they feel the school is not preparing them for much," said Luis Sanchez, director of Inner City Struggle, one of the groups in the citywide campaign.
"Why even stay in school if the job I'm going to get is the same job I'm going to get if I don't graduate?" asked Sanchez. "They're not going to be prepared for any job beyond working at Wal-Mart or in the fast-food industry. For them, it's easier to begin making money earlier in life."
Jessie Martinez, 18, a senior at Manual Arts, said six classmates who started the ninth grade with him have since dropped out. One left to support his family after his father, a mechanic, was injured on the job.
But, Martinez added, most of those who left didn't take school seriously.
"A lot of people just don't believe that school will help them [when they] get out of here," Martinez said. Many goofed off during their first two years and their grades suffered. "By the time they realized it, it was too late to fix it," he said. "They just gave up."
UC Davis recently accepted Martinez, and he has also applied to colleges on the East Coast. He will be the first in his family to go to college, he said, but that is not enough to influence his sister, a 10th-grader who often roams the halls at Manual Arts.
Natalie Alvarez, 18, said four people she knew had dropped out of Manual Arts. Most who left lost interest when the coursework became difficult because they didn't have the skills, she said. Most of her classmates have immigrant parents who are unable to help them, especially after the eighth grade, Alvarez said.
In one English class, "things I knew from elementary school, they had trouble grasping," she said. "If you can't get help at home, where can you go?"
Julio Daniel, 17, a senior at Manual Arts, said many students believe they are being cheated at inner-city schools.
"These schools out in South-Central don't have the same resources as schools in Granada Hills and Beverly Hills," he said. "There isn't a safety net," he said. Students don't believe that "if they are messing up, there is something there that can save them."