Los Angeles: Epicenter of High School Dropouts — Or Are They Pushed?

African American Drop Out Rate

Ashley Franklin of the Labor/Community Strategy Center

African American Drop Out Rate

Over a million US students who start high school this year won’t finish. In Los Angeles, only about half of entering students graduate, earning the city the designation by Education Week as a “dropout epicenter.” But the National Dignity in Schools Campaign reframes the issue: most kids who don’t finish haven’t “dropped out.” They’ve been “pushed out” by a culture of zero-tolerance, punishment, and removal that disproportionately affects children of color.

In Los Angeles, African American students are two to three times more likely to be suspended than students of other ethnicities. School police in low-income neighborhoods hand out truancy and tardiness tickets–something most middle class parents have never heard of — that carry exorbitant fines mounting into the hundreds of dollars. If unpaid, these turn into arrest warrants and divert young people out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

African American Drop Out RateFrom October 11 through the 17th, as part of the Dignity in Schools National Week of Action, events in 16 cities throughout the US are calling attention to the crisis and promoting alternatives to suspensions, expulsions, and the criminalization of youth. Here in Los Angeles on Tuesday, October 12, a coalition of community organizations held a day-long information session in front of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board on Beaudry Avenue. Young people, mostly from the Labor/Community Strategy Center, decorated the chain link fence across the street with art and posters while parents, students, former students, and their advocates offered personal testimony and called for full implementation of School-wide Positive Behavior Support (SWPBS) — the new approach to discipline that the LAUSD Board itself mandated back in March 2007.

Districts around the country that have fully implemented this model have seen up to a 60% reduction in disciplinary problems and suspensions. The LAUSD schools that have put it into practice have seen transformation in the school environment. But District 7, in South Los Angeles, arguably the district where youth are most in need of positive behavior support, has lagged far behind according to “Redefining Dignity in Our Schools,” the recently released report based on research by the grassroots organization Community Asset Development Re-defining Education (CADRE), in collaboration with Mental Health Advocacy Services, Inc., and Public Counsel Law Center. Markham Middle School, for example, entirely failed to implement the policy and also had the highest rate of suspensions. South LA schools continue to have more police, detectives, probation officers, and canine patrols than counselors. (To download the full report or executive summary on-line, please go here)

African American Drop Out Rate

Attorney Laura Faer

“Campuses are transformed into hostile territory,” said Claudia Gomez of the Youth Justice Coalition. “The school day is an extension of the violence going on in our communities.” In a six-month period, Gomez attended three different high schools, bringing her ongoing problems with her and getting herself kicked out of each due to fist fights and once for marijuana possession.

It’s a pattern only too familiar to Judy Arriaza, social worker with Public Counsel: “suspension after suspension, transfer after transfer, grades suffer along with attitudes toward school and nowhere do we see any positive intervention” while a kid in trouble for “fighting or doing something wrong that could have been handled by school administration is instead turned over to the police.”

When kids are pulled out of class again and again, they fall further and further behind making them even less able to function properly in class. And where do they go when suspended? With parents working and the school doors closed, kids end up getting into trouble. No doubt LAUSD has faced a daunting challenge when students bring violent or disruptive behavior to class but the district has relied for years on a form of triage — labeling some kids as hopeless cases and throwing them away. “They kicked me out,” Henry Sandoval recalled. “They told me don’t come back.”

Claudia Gomez

Claudia Gomez of the Youth Justice Coalition

SWPBS relies, instead, on the consistent teaching, modeling, reinforcement of appropriate behavior and discourages the reliance on punitive discipline. Intervention is preferred to exclusion. And parents are brought in and welcomed as collaborators.

Gomez landed at last at the Youth Justice Coalition’s charter school, Free LA High School, where gang intervention workers and counselors set her on the road to success. Sandoval, calling himself “a victim of the school to jail track,” also eventually found his way to Free LA High where, he says, “They never gave up on me, even when I gave up on myself. We need motivation, not punishment.”

Arriaza has seen what previously stigmatized youth can do. “We see them pull their grades up and graduate. But we can’t keep putting out fires. There aren’t enough advocates. Change has to come from above.”

We should all care about this, said Laura Faer, attorney with Public Counsel. The status quo “costs all of us a fortune in futures lost” while the alternative — SWPBS — “makes teachers happier and makes schools safer.”

African American Drop Out Rate

Roslyn Broadnax

A key component of SWPBS is parent involvement and Roslyn Broadnax is a deeply involved parent who, as a student back in 1979, found herself “pushed out” of Fremont High. Earning Ds in class, never bringing a report card home, she was nonetheless passed from grade to grade while unable to keep up with the work. “I became a young mother and when I had my child, I began looking back at the school system. I didn’t want my child going through what I went through.” Broadnax began volunteering at Fremont. Though she says she was made to feel unwelcome, she was determined to see that her children were treated fairly. “I don’t call my kids graduates. I call them survivors of the system.” She joined CADRE in the fight to win respect, dignity, and a quality education “not just for my child, but to stand up and be there when other parents can’t.”

After public events on Tuesday, the campaigners brought their testimony to the LAUSD Board and requested a meeting to discuss full implementation of SWPBS. Board member Yolie Flores — but not the full board — agreed to meet.

(LAUSD, take note: The Office of Civil Rights for the US Department of Education is now looking at school districts which have failed to reduce disproportionate exclusionary discipline rates. But let’s not reform our system because we’re afraid of legal consequences, i.e., punishment. Why not model for our kids this behavior: do the right thing.)

“Kid face closed doors wherever they look,” said Gomez. “School should be the one place where kids feel welcome.”

diane leferAnd where they are fully seen and respected. Anger mixed with disbelief still breaks through her voice when Broadnax recalls the counselor who told her she could feel proud of her son for being one of only three African American boys who was not classified as special ed. She is indeed proud of him. The young man is now attending law school.

Diane Lefer

Diane Lefer’s new book, The Blessing Next to the Wound, has just been published. Co-authored with Hector Aristizábal, it is a true story of surviving torture and civil war and seeking change (including change in how we treat our youth) through action.


  1. Julia Stein says

    Excellent article explaining why such high drop out rates in Los Angeles and other larger cities. Thanks.

    I’m curious why the advertisement for the film “Waiting for Superman” on the top of this page. What is hopeful about this last month is that black and Latino parents, voters, teachers, and students in Chicago and Washington D.C. have begun to have victories over the kinds of policies advocated in the film “Waiting for Superman” which are so harmful to U.S. education. “Waiting for Superman” wants to country to continue the Republican-led policies of the last two decades of standardized testing and privatizing schools.

    I’m not saying any particular charter school is bad, and LAUSD has huge problems. I was involved in innovative high school curriculum and innovative programs for juvenile deliquents here in Los Angeles in the 1970s which was squelched. I’ve never heard of Youth Justice Coalition’s charter school, Free LA High School and curious to hear more about it. I also worked in a charter school in LA which had big problems. Even the conservative Hoover Institute study at Stanford University had research that shows charter schools are not as good as public schools.

    • says

      I agree that charter schools are often overrated and not the whole solution. Far from it. But Free LA High (in partnership with John Muir Charter School) enrolls young people ages 18-24 (though they are very open about making exceptions where there is need and have gone as young as 15 and older than 24) who’ve been pushed out everywhere else after being in the juvenile justice system. School prepares them to take the GED or earn a regular academic high school diploma. The curriculum is a mix of standard academics and social justice and community organizing and lots of creativity–hiphop, legal graffiti art, etc. Gang intervention, counseling, restorative justice meetings to resolve problems are available. Students obviously have a lot of catching up to do. It’s not as though everyone graduates immediately, and enrollment is small–about 50-60 students enrolled. But these are the students who’ve been written off and thrown away and the Free LA program sticks with them and doesn’t withdraw support and brings in programs and mentorship to channel the students into college. The YJC itself is a grassroots organization with membership and leadership drawn from young people who’ve been personally impacted by the juvenile justice system due to their own incarceration or the lockup of a close family member.

  2. says

    As I can testify from my son’s experience: mass-ed big high schools are and were a problem even for carefully parented non-colored middle-class kids – and were so way before the days of extra ‘no-kid-left-behind’ stress on tests and on learning as pain rather than joy.

    Yes, we must insist that their parents (or parent or guardian)be responsible, and that each young person herself or himself become responsible. However, today’s and even yesterday’s mass-ed high schools instead focus on regimentation, not growth into responsibility.

    Sometimes the most responsible take-charge thing a young person can do is to drop out! That’s what my son did in 1996 – at the time to my own trepidation (as parent I had to sign on agreement) – but now in retrospect to my relief. His high school experience (through 11th grade) was too much time-waste for him to take, but dropping out left him free to blossom. He enrolled in community college, got his diploma via the California High School Proficiency Exam, and went on to BA at UC Santa Cruz and MS in Physics at CSULB.

    It’s a mistake to aim at incarcerating all adolescents into mass-ed big regimented high schools. Kids are not all alike, and the implications of drop-out are not all alike.

  3. says

    Marshall, I’m sure you’re right, and that’s exactly why schools are now in the position of needing to do more than the traditional schooling. Although the other thing that’s happening is that parents who want to be involved are too often excluded or made to feel like pests.

    We have to consider circumstances. My high school only had 3 guidance counselors for about 1200 students and when I went in to ask a question, I was told not to worry, SATs were only for students who planned to go to college. Well, I was on track to be (and turned out to be) the class valedictorian and I had other resources to get my questions answered. But today in a neighborhood where the vast majority of parents haven’t graduated college, or even high school, or speak no or limited English, 3 counselors–which is what kids in District 7 are still getting–just are not enough. How are they supposed to get to know the students well enough to guide them through academic requirements let alone deal with personal and community issues?

    I just read Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, and he follows some young people who tested out with genius IQ but those who came from the wrong side of the tracks weren’t able to make use of their abilities–too many social deficits. They lost out but so did the larger society. We need to teach kids about dignity and respect by treating them with dignity and respect (even when, as adults, we sometimes wonder if they deserve it! They do, of course.) That kind of grounding has got to be as important as academics for kids who spend much of their lives in chaos and being stigmatized. School should be the refuge. And I’ve seen schools where that’s exactly what is happening– including a school in South LA where teachers used to yell all the time at misbehaving kids. The teachers have been encouraged to change their behavior and the kids show up alert, happy, eager to learn, attentive. And, incidentally, parents are actively encouraged to volunteer at the school and can even attend free English classes there.

    Gladwell also reports on research that shows low-income kids and middle and high-income kids scoring the same in school at the start. After each summer vacation, the low-income kids fall further and further behind. They don’t have the advantages of books at home and enrichment. Their summers pull them back.

    Anyway, the Dignity in Schools campaign isn’t about giving kids license to run wild. It’s about valuing each child and letting that child know he or she is valued.

  4. marshall says

    This is not a west coast problem, it is here also. Too many think the root of the problem is at school while I think it is at home. Kids bring to school the rules they learn at home. The one stat I would want to see is, what percent of the drop outs have only one parent? It is high here and home suppot seems to lead the problem.

  5. Sergio says

    Although I mostly agree that youth are pushed out of school to an extent, there is one key component that is missing from your story. Youth themselves are culpable for most of what happens to them while at school. Behavior, attitude, educational responsibility are what drives kids out. Yesss the youth are affected by other factors and problems that stem from home issues and community issues. But it is truly important to understand that youth themselves by way of their attitude and behavior at school is what helps to drive them out. There are many cases where I would opt for youth not to be suspended or expelled but rather diverted into programs that would look to correct the problem. Parents, your Youth act one way at home and another at school that is the reality. Teachers have become victims of disrespectful youth. Unfortunately because of these few, school districts have to ensure the safety of the whole so police and security are required which brings its host of issues..the key focus should be Prevention from a droput to happen and not the intervention,unfortunately intervention in most cases is too late…Lets get the parents truly involved and have them sit in class with their child to help babysit those who have become behavior problems..

    • says

      Sergio, I do agree with you in large part but the reality is that we if let all these kids sink, the whole society goes down with them. We’ve tried blame, we’ve tried insisting on personal responsibility (rather than cultivating it and modeling it), and where has it gotten us? We need these kids and they need us.

  6. says

    Thank you for publishing this article. As a teacher who has worked at many schools in the poorest areas of Los Angeles- I can attest to the truth written here about why young people fail to complete high school. Many are intelligent, but they get farther and farther behind and one day they are gone. Many have personal and family challenges, and are not receiving the support they need to overcome the obstacles before them.
    An additional reason is the free market agenda which is taking over education and has been codified in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. It is again a punitive approach, and students are being tested to death- taking the joy out of learning. Programs that keep kids in school like arts, music, trades, auto shop, culinary arts are being slashed. This is also pushing our kinds out of school.
    Students are also being ticketed by the police if they are as little as 30 min. LATE to school, especially in the less affluent areas of the city. This is outrageous because students are treated as criminals, need to pay heavy fines, parents have to miss work to go to court, etc. It is good that the Labor Strategy Center has been addressing this.
    Even after saying all of the above, the drop out rate is miraculously decreasing in LAUSD. I think it attests to the amazing students and families we have who battle so many obstacles including racism in our city. Hats off to the youth who are our future leaders, and will no doubt do a better job than the generations before them.

    • says

      Thank you, Arlene. All our students have a better chance –including the chance to go to college instead of into the military–because of your tireless advocacy on their behalf. Did I hear a rumor you were running for school board? If it’s true, please feel free to publicize it here because you’ve certainly earned the votes.

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