Without a high school diploma, young adults can drift into the ranks of lowest-paid workers, aid-supported parents or street corner hoodlums. The dropout problem becomes everyone's problem.
Researchers found that two local school districts are beating the odds, defying expectations based on ethnicity, parent education and incomes.
An analysis of 134 large, predominately Latino districts by the Education Research Center ranked Ceres Unified second and Merced Union High third in the nation for their Latino graduation rates. "Diplomas Count 2012: Trailing Behind, Moving Forward" lists only 38 districts whose success outpaced the dour statistical predictions.
Across California, Latinos are twice as likely as whites to drop out before graduation -- 30 percent of Latinos failed to secure a diploma in 2011, compared with 15 percent of whites.
"Those are statistics that should bother us," Ceres Superintendent Scott Siegel said. "And this is a grave concern to us economically if we don't fix this."
Ceres and Merced closed that critical link in the achievement gap, with about 85 percent of Latinos and whites graduating in 2011, and they did it in very different ways.
Ceres starts at preschool, keeps classes small, engages with Latino parents and pushes all kids to be college-ready.
Merced, serving only high school students, gets teens involved in activities to improve attendance, grades and behavior.
Both districts face long odds demographically, with lots of English learners and a vast majority of students qualified as low-income. Seven in 10 Ceres students and six in 10 Merced Union students are Latino.
For Siegel, that means 85 percent, soaring high on a chart of California graduation rates, is still too low.
"There's a space between the top of the bars and 100 percent, and that space is kids," he said. "We have to do what we can, everything we can, for the kids that we have, and that's the bottom line. There are no throwaway kids."
Ceres sacrificed salaries to keep after-school and summer programs in place and class sizes down despite state funding cuts. The district introduced intensive teaching strategies and a mantra of high standards for everyone, said Deputy Superintendent Mary Jones.
One of those standards is a switch to having all students taking algebra by eighth grade. It's a stretch for some, but it means all students have a shot at college, Jones said.
Siegel checks two areas often linked to dropout risk: discipline and bad grades. He wants to be sure equal missteps get equal treatment. After-school recreation programs are free to every student, with extra help for kids falling behind in regular tests.
"You can't have an ideal world, but you want a level playing field," Siegel said.
Patricia Gandara, an education professor at UCLA, quoted in the study, said that a lack of a level field is often overlooked.
"With Latinos, children are often living in communities where no one has completed high school or even had contact with high school, and where people don't know how to go to college or why you would go to college," she said.
Mexican-American children of U.S.-born parents in very poor neighborhoods often fare worse than earlier generations, the study found.
For Merced Union, unequal opportunities are seen in schooling as well as communities. The sprawling high school district gathers incoming freshmen from 10 elementary districts, all with their own ways of teaching and varying levels of success.
Assembling the pieces
Merced Union includes Merced High and Golden Valley High in Merced, Atwater High and Buhach Colony High in Atwater, and Livingston High.
Superintendent Scott Scambray advocates an early support model he believes is unique in the state, giving all freshmen a homeroom or study hall period to build in extra help and a sense of community. Early results are impressive, with one school seeing an 80 percent reduction in freshman F's the first quarter.
Scambray's top priority, however, is tying teens to school through activities. He points to studies showing that students in extracurricular activities get better grades and attend school regularly.
"We would never think about cutting band or athletics, no matter how bad the budget got," he said. More than a quarter of students participate in sports or band districtwide.
But there's more to do to keep a high graduation rate, Scambray said. "We not only want to sustain it, we want to improve it," he said.
In Ceres, Siegel also said the national notice was nice, but not enough. "We're not sitting on this and saying 'Now we've arrived.' There's 15 percent of kids not graduating and not enough going to four-year colleges," he said.
That's the next hurdle Ceres Unified is running toward, seeing higher numbers of graduates heading to their next diploma.
Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2339, and on Twitter, @NanAustin.
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