By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Lamont Millender, a counselor and member of United Teachers Los Angeles, is one of 85 diploma project advisors whose job may be eliminated due to budget cuts.
Lamont Millender believes he has made a difference at Jordan High School. Over the past two years, this "diploma project advisor" — or DPA — has worked with inner-city youths who are at the highest risk of dropping out and has motivated many of them to stay in school. He even convinced some high school students who were already considered dropouts to come back.
Millender, a counselor and member of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), is one of 85 DPAs whose job may be eliminated due to budget cuts within the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).
"I honestly feel that without us, the dropout rate will soar even higher," says Millender. "I'm very worried about the implications. Until there were DPAs, nobody went after students who didn't meet their targeted graduation year. But now they know if they come back, there's still a diploma waiting for them. At Jordan High School, most students don't see dropping out as an option anymore.
In March, the school board voted to cut thousands of teaching positions. The board also voted to decentralize the dropout prevention program — which could end the program at many school sites. For the past two years, schools with the most challenging populations have been assigned DPAs out of the district's Title I funds. But under the new rules, administrators at individual school sites can opt to "buy back" the counselors. Funding will come from a pot of categorical money that can also be used to buy back other positions that have been cut, including teachers, classified employees, administrators and other counselors.
DPAs are concerned that with competing priorities for limited funding, schools may choose not to buy them back — and that this could result in jeopardizing the progress that has been made in improving LAUSD's graduation rate.
The district has invested $10 million per year in the Dropout Prevention and Recovery Program since it began in 2007, and has assigned DPAs to 49 high schools and 31 middle schools. Debra Duardo, director of the program, says the program has had "great success" in recovering thousands of students who were considered dropouts or potential dropouts.
Duardo, who dropped out herself in the ninth grade and eventually earned a master's degree in social work from UCLA, says, "Forty-two percent of those on the dropout list for the district were recovered because of DPAs. That's huge."
"It isn't easy," says Duardo. "We go out and find these students. We go to their homes. We get them back into their schools or enrolled into alternative programs.
And if we find they are already enrolled in an education program, such as a community college, they are removed from the dropout list."
It is difficult to estimate how many dropouts have been saved or recovered this year, with a change in the formula for calculating dropouts that went into effect nationwide. But the district's official graduation rate has increased overall, and DPAs have been given much of the credit.
During 2007-08, Jordan High School's graduation rate increased by 12 percent. By the end of this school year, Millender anticipates, there will be another jump of about 20 percent, resulting in a 67 percent graduation rate. Last year, 55 students on the school's dropout list returned, and of these, 48 received a diploma.
Emily Hernandez, a DPA at Berendo Middle School in the South Central neighborhood of Los Angeles, has also seen incredible progress.
"We've seen a lot of success," says the UTLA member who works with seventh- and eighth-graders who are failing more than 50 percent of their classes or have received multiple suspensions. "What we've done at the school is entirely change the climate by collaborating and creating connections for kids. When kids feel connected to school, they stay in school."
Since the program began, suspensions have gone from more than 1,700 a year to less than 20 per year, which she partly credits to the positive behavior support system of the program. Standardized test scores have gone up and the school's graduation rate has climbed from 68 percent to 75 percent.
The turnabout has been so successful that the school no longer qualifies for the program. However, the administration plans to buy back Hernandez with Quality Education Investment Act funding made possible through CTA.
Because the system does not include middle school students in the dropout rate, Hernandez worries that middle schools may be less likely to purchase DPAs. "But by the time they get to high school, it may be too late," she says. "We may see them dropout in high school, but it didn't happen overnight."
She also worries that without adequate resources, schools may "push out" students who are behavior and academic problems, which will increase the number of dropouts.
California is under intense pressure under No Child Left Behind to reduce the dropout rate and increase the percentage of students receiving high school diplomas. A total of 12,367 students dropped out of middle schools and high school within the city of Los Angeles in 2006-07, according to the California Dropout Research Project, a project of UC Santa Barbara's Graduate School of Education.
Dropouts have higher unemployment, lower earnings, poorer health, higher rates of mortality, higher rates of criminal behavior and incarceration, and increased dependence on public assistance, states the report. The report also concludes that reducing the number of dropouts by half would generate $1 billion in economic benefits to the community and result in 3,659 fewer murders and aggravated assaults each year.
This year, LAUSD high school academic counselors had to handle as many as 500 students. Next year, reports the Los Angeles Times, that number could increase to 650 students per counselor.