Student Recovery Day recruits dropouts to go back to school

As a pupil services and attendance counselor, Francisco Vasquez has spent the past five years working with some of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s most at-risk students.

Throughout his tenure mentoring drop outs at the middle and high school levels, the Fremont High School counselor has proudly racked up number of battle scars in the on-going war to keep inner-city kids in class.

Vasquez prepared to earn more of those scars Monday when he joined around 160 administrators and counselors who fanned the city tracking down dropouts from Fremont, Fairfax, Polytechnic and Wilson high schools during the district’s inaugural Student Recovery Day.

Back on campus, clerks and secretaries manned the phone in a concerted effort to get a hold of AWOL students and their families.

The tactic met with some success early on.

Within the first hour, Fremont officials had already gotten one student to return to class.

“We’re here to help,” Vasquez said. “We want to see (students) be successful, to graduate.”

Low graduation rates and high numbers of drop outs have plagued LAUSD for decades.

However, in recent years, the district has begun making some headway in keeping its kids in at their desks and off the streets during school hours.

According to the California Department of Education, LAUSD’s dropout rate decreased 17 percent in 2007-08. Meanwhile, the district’s graduation rates jumped from 64.6 percent in 2006-07 to 72.4 percent.

The rates were calculated using a new statewide database implemented three years ago that makes tracking students easier. Previously, students who had died or simply transferred without informing their former school would be inaccurately counted as dropouts.

District officials attributed the improvement largely to the efforts of individual schools in implementing dropout prevention and recovery plans. Counselors at LAUSD’s roughly 660 schools regularly make phone calls and home visits to find out the reason behind a student’s truancy and offer any services necessary to get him or her to resume his or her education.

Those reasons can range from frustration over not understanding the curriculum, to psychiatric ailments to a sense of not fitting in.

Some 200 Fremont students last year finished the required coursework, but couldn’t get their diplomas because they did not pass the California High School Exit Exam.

But most of the time, students drop out of school because they don’t believe in themselves, says Marquis Jones, an advisor at Fremont.

“It’s a lack of motivation with students,” Jones said. “They don’t think they can be anything.”

On Monday, the district hoped to make a collective dent in getting students to return to the classroom.

The brainchild of school board member Steve Zimmer, Student Recovery Day symbolized the support of administrators at the district’s Beaudry Avenue headquarters for students. Board members and district brass, including Superintendent Ramon Cortines, accompanied counselors on the day’s rounds.

“We need to look at the individual needs of the kids rather than saying they’re just a number,” Cortines said , adding that the day “Is not about how many we get back. It’s about letting this city, this community, know that we care about students.”