Degrees of Deceit 

How one inner-city L.A. high school played the numbers game and made its dropout rate go away

Wednesday, Jul 17 2002
Illustration by Jordin Isip

YECENIA STOPPED GOING TO L.A.'S MANUAL ARTS High School near the end of what should have been her junior year, though by that point she'd flunked too many classes to be called a junior. When she took off for Texas with her boyfriend at age 16, she planned to get a job, or maybe return to school down there.

She didn't have much luck. A public school in Fort Worth wouldn't let her enroll without a parent's signature, a problem given that she'd run away. Then, when she looked for a job, businesses wouldn't hire her without a diploma.

She quickly settled into the dispiriting role of baby-sitting for her boyfriend's family in exchange for food and shelter, finally returning home in December 2000, after a sojourn of about seven months. In February -- about nine months after she'd taken off from Manual Arts -- she registered at a different Los Angeles public school.

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The academic hiatus was a disaster for Yecenia, who is now trying to make up for lost time. Yet for the L.A. Unified School District and Yecenia's former school, Manual Arts High, located south of downtown, there's a silver lining. Statistically speaking, Yecenia and thousands of other dropouts never dropped out at all. In fact, her school-year trip to Texas did nothing to mar Manual Arts' virtually nonexistent dropout rate, which became one of the lowest in the state and the nation under the leadership of former principal Wendell C. Greer Jr. The school won the plaudits of President Clinton in 1997.

The dropout-rate fabrication is so institutionalized that year after year, school districts across the state, including L.A. Unified, cite low dropout rates as a success story, a sure sign, they say, that schools have gotten better -- which is a helpful offset when low test scores tell a gloomier tale. And nowhere has such news been more welcome and more needed, from a public-relations standpoint, than at Manual Arts High, where measurable student achievement is near rock bottom.

Manual Arts' method of counting dropouts, though apparently legal, has allowed the school to claim that it had virtually no dropouts -- even while its graduating class has less than half the number of students who started as ninth-graders three years ago. And though some of these departed students are not dropouts, an extensive review by the L.A. Weekly of public records and internal school documents, plus dozens of interviews, overwhelmingly suggest that hundreds of students who stop going to school without graduating are never counted as dropouts.

Moreover, many of these students remain on the enrollment list long after they leave school, which gives campuses like Manual Arts a breather from chronic overcrowding, without their having to give up the thousands of dollars that each "ghost" student generates.

While Manual Arts trumpeted its near-zero dropout rate, hundreds of students skipped classes, walked off campus or just didn't show up. And while some school staff members deserve admiration for near heroic efforts to help students, good intentions are overcome by a dearth of adequate supervision and counseling. It doesn't help that many students arrive from impoverished or disintegrated families, frequently with poor academic skills.

The chicanery around dropout rates doesn't start with Manual Arts, but with the state of California itself, which does not conform to widely accepted standards for counting dropouts honestly and accurately. The state gives schools up to a year and a half to locate missing students and then offers any number of loopholes to avoid counting them as dropouts. And neither the state nor L.A. Unified ever audits a school's dropout statistics. So in reality, anything goes; even outright fibbing will never be caught let alone punished. And while it can't be proven that Manual Arts lied about Yecenia, the school's notations about her are blatantly inaccurate.

Manual Arts is not an isolated case. Other L.A. Unified schools have recorded reductions in dropout rates approaching that of Manual Arts. Yet there has been no corresponding increase in graduation rates. A federal study used a mathematical model to estimate that California undercounted dropouts in one recent year by more than 70 percent. Districtwide, there are 45 percent fewer graduates than seventh graders. While Yecenia's class of 2001 had 1,174 students in ninth grade, last June only 434 graduated.

Yecenia was out of school from mid-May to February, but she could have missed an entire year of school, then shown up for one day in June, and not been counted as a dropout. Nor would Yecenia have been counted as a dropout if she'd robbed a bank while in Texas and then spent the next five years locked up. You're not a dropout if you exit school for juvenile hall -- on the theory that because juvenile hall has classes, being sent there is like transferring to a new school. For that matter, if she'd dropped dead after dropping out, she wouldn't be counted either. Death trumps the dropout tally, as long as you expire within a year or so. Moreover, if Yecenia had entered a dropout-recovery program -- for which only dropouts are eligible -- it's still unlikely she would ever have been recorded as a dropout, according to the standard practices of L.A. Unified.

Principal Wendell Greer: did he
orchestrate a miracle or a mirage?
(Photos from yearbook)

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