San Luis Obispo County schools fight empty desk syndrome

Each day that school is in session in San Luis Obispo County, on average, about two students drop out before earning their high school diplomas.

The most recent state data show that 376 local students did not finish high school in the 2007-08 academic year, making the dropout rate for that year slightly more than 3 percent of the county’s roughly 12,500 students in ninth through 12th grades. That compares to a dropout rate of about 4.87 percent statewide.

The rate is derived by counting the number of students reported to have stopped going to school, subtracting the number that have come back and then adding the number of so-called lost transfers.

Lost transfers are students who are reported to have moved to another California public school, but then no record of that new enrollment is found.

Based on projections of 2007-08 data from the state Department of Education, researchers with the agency estimate that 11.1 percent of San Luis Obispo County students would drop out of school over four years. The statewide rate is estimated at 18.9 percent over four years.

Education officials point out that high school dropouts are more prone to live in poverty and be dependent on government assistance, according to a number of national studies.

Though San Luis Obispo County has a lower percentage of dropouts than California as a whole, local educational leaders say more can be done to ensure students stay in school.

“Even though our dropout rate is lower than that state average’’ it is still too high, according to John Elfers, senior program coordinator with the county Office of Education and co-chairman of a task force working on the dropout issue. “One is too many.”

Concern about the number of students missing school prompted the county’s Children’s Services Network to create the task force — the first of its kind locally.

School officials, social service agencies, law enforcement, the county Public Health Department and the District Attorney’s Office worked together to develop a plan with a dozen recommendations aimed at increasing school attendance and graduation rates.

The suggestions include greater efforts to get parents involved, methods to combat truancy among high-risk groups such as transient youth and pregnant teens, and even a countywide daytime curfew.

Increased efforts to keep students in school will only succeed if at-risk youth are identified early on so that educational and community resources can be used to intervene, according to the plan.

“We are all stakeholders in this,” said Julian Crocker, county superintendent of schools. “It is time to come together to help our students finish school and give them an opportunity to succeed.”Once they drop out, “the likelihood of them being productive, healthy citizens diminishes very quickly,” he added.

Dropout factors

California has the highest dropout rate of any state. Accurate data to track students throughout their progression in school have always fallen short, and educators are only starting to get their first real glimpse of the magnitude of the problem.

The state implemented a student identification process two years ago, allowing for districts to keep track of students who might move to another district or not re-enroll in school at all.

The state data show that the proportion of dropouts is higher among Hispanics, blacks and students with low English proficiency.

Though Hispanics make up slightly more than a fourth — 26.62 percent — of high school enrollment in San Luis Obispo County, nearly half — 44.15 percent — of the students who dropped out in 2007-08 were Hispanic.

Of the just over 3,300 Hispanic students enrolled in local schools, 166 — about 5 percent of them — dropped out in 2007-08, according to state data.

Black students make up 2.37 percent of total high school enrollment, but account for 7.71 percent of the dropouts overall in 2007-08.

Of the nearly 300 black students in grades nine through 12 countywide, nearly one in 10 — 9.8 percent — stopped going to school that year.

And while English-learning students make up less than 15 percent of the overall high school enrollment countywide, they make up more than a fourth — or 28.72 percent — of the 376 dropouts overall in 2007-08, according to state data.

Of those roughly 1,800 students, 108 of them — about 6 percent — dropped out in 2007-08, according to the state data.

The best way to combat the problem is to intervene as early as elementary school, Crocker said. An added emphasis must also be placed on educating parents about the importance of keeping youth in school, he added.

“Only then will we start to see a difference,” Crocker said.

Fate of dropouts

It is almost impossible to know where the nearly 400 students who dropped out of San Luis Obispo County schools went last year.

Some might have turned to drug or alcohol abuse or crime, educators said. Others are believed to be working to help support their families or themselves.

“There are so many kids falling between cracks, and we are not reaching all the kids that need to be reached,” said David Kopperud, education programs consultant for the state Department of Education. “The first step is identifying these students.”

The task force suggests that a countywide daytime curfew be enacted to increase efforts by law enforcement and probation to make sure youths are where they should be during school hours.

Under a daytime curfew, minors who are anywhere other than school without what authorities deem to be a valid reason could be subject to detention or citation. These laws have not been without controversy, periodically facing legal challenges and opposition by families who home-school their children and by advocates of civil liberties.

It would be up to each city or the county Board of Supervisors to enact a daytime curfew ordinance.

San Luis Obispo police Chief Deborah Linden said that a daytime curfew would allow officers to investigate and detain youths who are out in public when authorities feel they should be in school. Students can then be returned to school or to their parents, she said.

“Currently, officers do not generally enforce truancy regulations since it is not criminal conduct — truancy violations are tracked and enforced by the schools themselves,” Linden said.

The most effective means of keeping kids in school comes from a collaborative effort of schools, parents, law enforcement, mental health and other social service agencies, Kopperud said.

“The task is to keep track of kids well enough to know when you are losing a kid and knowing them well enough to intervene,” he said. “Finding that a student is chronically truant should be a warning signal that something is going wrong.”

Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939.