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Dropout rates improve in L.A. Unified

August 3, 2009 |  4:25 pm

The dropout rate in the Los Angeles Unified School District declined almost 17%, according to figures the district released today.

Those figures represent welcome news in a district beleaguered by budget cuts and ongoing battles over the future path of reforms. The numbers also raise questions about whether necessary budget reductions -- and how the district achieved them -- will undermine this apparent improvement in the nation's second-largest school system.  

The district dropout rate for the 2007-08 school year came in at 26.4%, trailing all other large urban school systems in California except Oakland Unified. But it's still progress, compared to 31.7% for the previous year.

The current numbers are more accurate than past measures because the state now tracks students individually. But there are still weaknesses in the system, because  it works best with students who remain in the state and in public schools. Students who go elsewhere -- out of state or to a private school -- are no longer tracked. In addition, the new system has been in effect for only two years, which means the four-year dropout rates are still estimated.

Graduation figures also were up in L.A. Unified by 7.8% to 72.4%.

District officials were delighted.

"This is good news," Supt. Ramon C. Cortines said in a release. "We continue to make steady progress year after year... We are not giving away diplomas simply for good attendance. Our students work hard to earn them."

Among interesting results: At Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights, the four-year dropout rate fell from 33.2% in 2006-07 to 23.8% the next. That's an improvement of 28% in one year. Put another way, previously one in three students would drop out. And that improved to fewer than one in four.

Roosevelt's improvement happened in the year before the school's takeover by a nonprofit under the purview of L.A. Mayor  Antonio Villaraigosa. In fact, these improved results happened under the district leadership of former Supt. David L. Brewer, who was forced out in December.

District officials attributed the success to the conversion of large high schools into clusters of smaller learning communities better suited to help students at risk of failure. Dropout prevention efforts also included a better coordination of counseling efforts to identify struggling ninth graders and allow older students a fifth year to complete high school.

Whether these gains will be sustained could depend on how well the school system adjusts to reduced resources. One casualty was a much-publicized outreach effort called "The Diploma Project." Many of those counselors involved will still be doing similar work, but they'll be organized differently to save money.

-- Howard Blume and Jason Song