Oakland High School
Dropout Rate Hits 52%

By Nanette Asimov
SF Chronicle Staff Writer

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 factories.''
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 for protection.
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 out.
"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 said.
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 stay."
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 parents' pattern.
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.



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