- Fewer than half the freshmen who enter Oakland public
high schools - - just 48 of every 100 -- stick around long enough to graduate.
- That's the devastating news from a recent California
study by the Harvard University Civil Rights Project and the Urban Institute
Education Policy Center in Washington, D.C., whose researchers described
high schools with graduation rates lower than 60 percent as "dropout
- In the Bay Area, the study listed graduation rates for
Oakland and San Francisco. At The Chronicle's request, the researchers
also ran the numbers for seven other large Bay Area districts: South San
Francisco, Santa Rosa High School, Novato, San Jose, West Contra Costa,
Hayward and Mount Diablo.
- Oakland's graduation rate was substantially lower than
all of them.
- The study estimated that dropouts cost the state $14
billion a year in lost wages, crime and jail time.
- "It's astounding and unconscionable," said
Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown. "It's a crisis that's been going on for
decades. Oakland is trying hard. They need money. They need leadership.
It's quite daunting, and it's going to require a lot more truth-telling
and honesty than has been forthcoming in recent decades."
- In Oakland, 68 percent of the 50,400 public school students
are poor enough to qualify for the federal lunch program. Their odds of
getting a diploma are worse than the 50-50 chance of winning a coin toss.
- And that makes Oakland schools emblematic of one of society's
most vexing dilemmas: How to educate children growing up amid violence,
poverty, drugs, single parenthood, teen pregnancy and unemployment.
- Problems are not confined to the students. In 2002, the
Oakland schools went bankrupt. In 2003, the state ousted the superintendent,
suspended the school board and appointed state administrator Randy Ward.
- Intent on restoring solvency, Ward has cut spending and
slashed programs -- and in the process alienated teachers and parents.
With the focus on survival, tension is palpable. Ward relies on a bodyguard
- On Monday, Ward said through a spokeswoman that he doesn't
have time to discuss the poor graduation rate.
- His high school director, Sue Woehrle, acknowledged that
some kids slip through the cracks. Oakland's response, she said, has been
to begin transforming the culture of high school.
- Little by little, the district is breaking up its vast,
impersonal schools into smaller campuses of no more than 400 students each.
That endeavor is being paid for in part with $12.6 million from the Bill
and Melinda Gates Foundation.
- "It's about getting to know the students, calling
their families when they're absent, and paying attention to what's going
on in their lives," Woehrle said.
- She and Ben Visnick, president of the Oakland teachers
union, both questioned the accuracy of the Harvard study graduation data.
They suggested that the missing students may be moving away, not dropping
- "We're seeing a huge exodus of families moving out
of Oakland due to affordable housing," Visnick said. "There's
a lot of migration to Fairfield, Antioch, Tracy."
- Christopher Swanson, who analyzed the data for the Urban
Institute, acknowledged that the researchers could not account for transfers.
But he said the method was reliable because it relies on enrollment, not
dropouts. While some students move out of Oakland, others move in.
- "It will generally provide more accurate information
than the methods most states, including California, are using," he
- State education officials admit that their own dropout
numbers are based on guesswork and have urged the Legislature to implement
a student-tracking system that could tell when students enroll anywhere
in the state. But that system is at least five years away.
- Meanwhile, the state figures show that nearly two-thirds
of Oakland's freshmen earn a diploma. Harvard says it's closer to half
-- a difference of more than 500 kids.
- The researchers used enrollment figures to estimate how
many ninth- graders would graduate four years later. That method pulls
the state's graduation rate from the official 87 percent down to 71 percent
-- and Oakland's from 66 to 48 percent.
- "Only half? That's amazing -- but it's believable,"
said senior Abraham Pena, who like many students at Oakland's Street Academy
has considered quitting school.
- The lure of the street reached Pena when he was only
in middle school, lost in classes of 35 students and "just hanging
around, not doing my work," he said.
- An older brother had already dropped out as a sophomore.
But that experience proved a cautionary tale.
- "He wasn't getting any good jobs," Pena said.
"It made me think that if I finished high school, I could get a good
job and not have to struggle a lot."
- So Pena enrolled in Street, a school designed to keep
kids in class. Instead of teachers, students have "CTMs," which
stands for consultant/teacher/mentor. The CTMs stay until 5 p.m., helping
students with homework, talking with attention-starved kids, and offering
guidance that may be missing at home.
- "My CTM, Gina, she's like a second mom to me,"
said Aaron Davis, 18, who used to wander the halls at Oakland High counting
floor tiles instead of going to class. "It's been a really good year.
At the other school, as soon as the bell rings, they're gone. Here, they
- Most Street students landed there after failing at other
schools. As they spoke, themes emerged of harsh lives -- arguments, absent
fathers, few demonstrations of love -- and classrooms where students didn't
understand their assignments, and where the rules were so lax that they
could act out with impunity.
- Parent Regina Bess wishes she had a magic formula for
her son, Freddie, 16, a student at Street. There, despite the fact that
Freddie has a mentor, a good program, and a small school that provides
time and attention, she is concerned that he will follow his estranged
- Bess dropped out at age 14, but returned two years later
to earn her diploma.
- His father shrugs off the issue of education. "He
says Fred will figure it out," Bess said.