National University System Institute for Policy Research

(858) 642-8498 Get Started

"Grappling with San Diego's Latino High School Dropouts"

As published in the San Diego Daily Transcript

Vince Vasquez

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Over the past month educators at the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) have been trumpeting new state statistics that indicate a dramatic cut in the number of high school dropouts. Though this is good news, we shouldn’t ignore the growing “Latino achievement gap” in the region.

Changing the status quo on student retention is critical, as teenagers that fall through the cracks will dramatically diminish our region’s economic growth and prosperity. Adults who drop out of high school are more likely to be poor, unemployed, be in poorer health and spend time in the corrections system. A high school dropout is the loss of not only thousands of taxpayer dollars, but the loss of a young resident who will find it harder to compete in our globalized economy, where higher skills and academic degrees are required to attain high-paying employment.

On the surface the numbers from the California Department of Education tell an encouraging story. San Diego Unified School District reduced the number of high school drop outs by 490 students in the 2007-2008 academic year, slashing the 4-year drop out rate by 37%.

The tallies in the rest of the region are not nearly as promising. Of the 25 high school districts in San Diego County that reported to the state, nearly half (12) saw a year-to-year rise in overall student dropouts. On the whole, 6,126 students dropped out of San Diego County high schools, a figure which is essentially unchanged from last year.

Where trends appear especially bleak is the drop out rate among Latino teens. Though they make up less than half of all students in San Diego County public schools (44%), Latinos composed more than half (56%) of all county drop-outs in 2007-08, a rate which increased from the previous school year. Sweetwater Union High School District (SUHSD), which educates more than 1 out of every 3 Hispanic high school students in the county, stood out as being especially troubled, with a 44% year-to-year increase in the number of Latino dropouts.

There are some proven policy options that can help address this problem. One is taking aggressive steps to increase the number of charter schools. The flexibility and diversity in teaching methods that charters encourage have been shown to help keep students in school and get them to graduation ceremonies. UC San Diego’s Preuss Charter School, for example, which enrolls 758 low-income students and is 60% Latino, reported zero dropouts in 2007-2008. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of San Diego Unified charter high schools have lower Latino dropout rates and overall dropout rates than the district average.

Unfortunately, in this respect Sweetwater has lagged the rest of the region. There is currently only one chartered high school, MAAC Community Charter School, which focuses on at-risk students who have already dropped out of school. Another school, High Tech High Chula Vista, which opened its doors in fall 2007 and is modeled from a highly-popular educational philosophy, is not part of the district and has yet to graduate its first full class of students. The SUHSD School Board should consider setting new goals to approving charter schools, including transitioning existing high schools into charters, giving school administrators the tools they need to raise academic expectations and deliver results in the classroom.

A second problem is that too many of our high schools in this region are simply too large to meet the needs of students. 82% of all Latino public high school students in San Diego County are currently enrolled at a high school with population of at least 1,823. At the Sweetwater District, 11 of its 12 high schools reach this size, including three with enrollments of almost 3,000. In contrast, at San Diego Unified only 27% of all mainstream public high schools have enrolments greater than 1,800.

Breaking down school sizes has been accomplished regionally with the aid of private dollars. With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, three historically large schools within SDUSD (San Diego High, Kearny High and Crawford High) were divided into fourteen smaller schools in 2004. Eight of these 14 institutions have now posted Latino drop-out rates that are lower than the district average. Cultivating higher achievement is not exclusive to San Diego; earlier this decade, New York City officials broke 12 large high schools in 47 small schools and witnessed a 38% graduation rate increase in 2007.

Dramatic success with either small schools or charter reforms is not guaranteed. Nor is it the only thing that needs to change. As Bill Gates stated in his Foundation’s 2009 Annual Letter, the schools that failed to make a dent in graduation rates or student achievement “tended to be the schools that did not take radical steps to change the culture, such as allowing the principal to pick the team of teachers or change the curriculum.” It will take true classroom pioneers and undaunted professionals to change the state of South Bay public schools, and when they do emerge, they are deserving of the full support of parents and teachers.

No parent, no matter what ethnic background, should be forced to send their child to a failing school and sentence them to an unproductive adulthood. By working together and setting higher goals for all, our community can achieve more scholastic success for the benefit of every student.