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Top L.A. school official hits streets to find dropouts

October 19, 2009 |  3:36 pm


When Michael Velasquez, 18, learned that the city's top education official was at the door, he decided he should put on his white T-shirt. L.A. schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines (standing next to Velasquez above) was taking part in a friendly sweep of students expected in school this fall but who had failed to show.

By midafternoon today, the first-time "Student Recovery Day" in the Los Angeles Unified School District had pulled in about 13 students near Fremont High. Street teams had knocked on at least 100 doors, while other district staff members worked a phone bank.

Nine other middle and high schools also participated. The initiative grew out of a suggestion two weeks ago from school board member Steve Zimmer to Cortines. It was thrown together hastily to boost enrollment before the school system has to turn in official numbers to the state. At stake are both funding and faculty jobs, which are based on enrollment.

The trip to the home of Velasquez and his mother, Maria Contreras, turned out to be slightly off point. Velasquez has recently graduated though a new computer-based, credit-recovery program at Locke High, he and his mother said. But the trip was not a waste because Velasquez is interested in finding a job-training program and needs help getting started.

Francisco Vasquez, a Fremont High counselor, used his clipboard as a surface to write information from son and mother to set up an appointment.

"I'm glad you finished high school," Cortines told the young man. "I want to make sure you get enrolled in a program to help you further."

At another stop, Cortines found Jose, 19, who quit going to school to help his mother at a store she runs. The two counselors with Cortines explained that Jose, who requested that his last name not be used, could attend school part-time or go to night school or adult school. Jose promised he would meet with counselors at Fremont to see what could be worked out.

The trio had trouble finding other dropouts on their list because families had moved or the school's information was out of date.

Cortines acknowledged that much of the day's efforts were symbolic, given the difficulty of finding students and returning them to school.

"But I don't think you can underestimate the personal kind of contact," he said. "They'll tell another five to 10 people. It's the ripple effect. And it doesn't have to be the superintendent, just a human being that is sincere and interested in the students."

-- Howard Blume

Photo by Irfan  Khan / Los Angeles Times