Degrees of Deceit

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.

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)

Such accounting tricks for creating a low -- and misleading -- dropout rate would do Enron and Arthur Andersen proud. The Weekly's deconstruction of dropout statistics reveals that California's dropout problem is worse than advertised, probably considerably worse. Researchers have reached the same conclusions independently. It's even possible that the dramatic improvements claimed year after year in dropout prevention are mostly statistical gamesmanship.

There are real-world consequences for this mathematical legerdemain. According to information compiled by the Washington, D.C.­based Coalition for Juvenile Justice, 35 percent of high school dropouts are unemployed, and those with jobs typically labor at the low end of the wage scale without health benefits, job security or future prospects of something much better. Moreover, 75 percent of minors sentenced to adult prison have not completed the 10th grade, and 82 percent of adult prison inmates never finished high school. Some experts contend that whether a student drops out is a surer predictor of that youth's future than test scores. And every disappearing dropout tally is very much a student who is in danger of disappearing as well. A student who has become statistically invisible is one who is less likely to be helped.

MANUAL ARTS HIGH GOT ITS NAME FROM ITS EARLY history as a trade school for the vocation-bound, but while its clientele is still decidedly working-class, the school itself is a basic aging L.A. comprehensive high school, beset by overcrowding and a gang-plagued neighborhood. The grassy front lawn, bordered by a white picket fence, would make nice frontage for a quaint, three-bedroom home, but is grotesquely undersized for a school that funnels through 4,000 students a year.

Just inside the main door, cheerful monitors track the comings and goings into a main hall that is clean and freshly painted. In truth, Manual Arts looks a lot better than some urban schools -- and it's got more high-quality computers than some schools with better reputations -- but it's still not a place where parents send their children by choice.

While the compound of buildings, with their smooth 1930s Art Deco lines, could pass for a college quad, the school is burdened with the tired, overused look that's a giveaway for an urban high school. Ubiquitous streaks of painted purple -- the school color of the Toilers -- snake under roof eaves and alongside sidewalks. But the paint is often too thin or too faded, just a veneer of color or vitality. Likewise, the grass and flower beds are too well-worn and the trees scarce and thin, as though unable to flourish. During one recent visit, the light fixtures in one outdoor corridor, though recently repaired, were shattered once again. Security aides patrol the grounds, but that didn't deter a man who smelled of alcohol from wheeling a shopping cart slowly through campus.

Yecenia said she was a good student -- A's and B's -- with supportive, hard-working immigrant parents, but near the end of middle school, "I started hanging out with the wrong crowd." She also had trouble grasping algebra, which was the first class she started ditching.

"I'm the type of person that, if I don't understand something, I give up easily," said Yecenia, who asked to be identified only by her middle name. "And at that time, I gave up easily. My teacher, he helped me a lot, and my classmates. I wanted to be on the same level as everybody. I wanted to be as smart as some other people. They understand the work real easily. And I was always left behind."

She began to skip fifth-period algebra, and then other classes as well: "Sometimes I used to be wandering around the school. Or I used to, like, jump the fence, leave the campus."

The pattern is familiar to UCLA education professor James Catterall, a nationally recognized expert on dropouts. "You can figure out the kids who have a high probability of dropping out just by knowing how well they are doing in early ninth grade," he said. "And it's not rocket science. It's the kids who are failing classes," especially students who are older than their classmates because they were held back in an earlier grade.  

Test scores at Manual Arts place the school in the lowest rank statewide, a woeful state of academic unpreparedness that began long before students reached high school. "Kids tend to avoid what they're not good at," said Catterall. "They don't see good prospects of finishing high school if they are failing courses and losing ground. They say, 'This is not for me.' And so if the school was serious about doing something, it would get serious with the kids who are in trouble entering high school."

In Yecenia's case, the school tried to help.

Yecenia's teacher would ask the office to search for her or to call her parents. The effort was extraordinary, given that instructors can have teaching loads of more than 200 students, with more than 40 in some classes. Such an overcrowded environment practically -- and sometimes literally -- pushes students out the door.

"Sometimes you come late to the class and you have no space, no seat," recalled Geovani, a former Manual Arts student. "So you had to be standing up. Most of the classes were like that. That happened almost every day, like, the first two months of school."

Until students start ditching, that is.

Manual Arts High: Sleek lines, a picket fence,
and bulging with students

If it weren't for widespread ditching, said Manual Arts students and parents interviewed for this story, many classes would be unbearable because of overcrowding. Carmen Johnson said that her grandson "had been playing hooky almost three weeks when some teacher called me up." When she confronted her grandson, he defended himself. "He said, 'Granny, there's no place for me to sit,'" Johnson recalled. "I said, 'I don't believe it.'"

Manual Arts administrators deny having chronically overcrowded classes, asserting instead that sometimes more students show up for school than expected, and that they are quickly redistributed into other classes or provided with desks and books.

In the case of Johnson's grandson, Carmen Johnson recalls heading right over to campus, to find out that he was right, and she confronted principal Greer. "I spoke to the principal. The principal says, 'We will make room for him to go if we have to bring in a desk.'" Which is fine, except that Johnson doesn't think she should have to raise hell for her grandson to get a chair. What about parents who don't speak English, or can't make it to school? What happens to students who lack adults to fight for them? Or what if they aren't as pushy as Johnson, who is so persistent that the district employed her for several years as a parent advocate?

An overcrowded, chaotic urban campus such as Manual Arts is fertile breeding ground for dropouts, said UCLA's Catterall. "When you talk to kids who have dropped out, almost the first thing they will say, in my experience, is that nobody gave a darn, nobody cared: 'Nobody knew I was gone.' They didn't have any champions."

In recent years, it was commonplace at Manual Arts for students to leave campus through holes in the chain-link fence or simply to wander within the school grounds. Jennifer, who didn't want her real name used, would show up only long enough to be counted as present, and then disappear.

"I just used to go to homeroom," said Jennifer, who now attends Metro High, just south of downtown. "That was usually it. And then I was gone. For five months." She wasn't even in class long enough for teachers to recognize her roaming the halls. "I used to go the first day of school, and then, the next week, I used to leave every single day. They were never used to seeing me, so I couldn't get caught. I used to call home telling them I was here, and they seemed to believe me."

For Yecenia, the bottom fell out in 10th grade, when she flunked classes and resisted attempts to help her. To be sure, Yecenia was not being ignored, not even by police, who twice arrested her for truancy. The first time, in ninth grade, she got off by showing a report card that still displayed good marks. Her grades had plummeted by the time of her second arrest, in 10th grade, and she was fined $350. Her father paid the fine, but grounded Yecenia and made her work off the debt. Her mother tried to keep Yecenia in line, too, despite her limited English and her own seventh-grade education. Yet neither parent could provide close, direct supervision while working long hours in a garment factory.  

Yecenia's teachers, who saw a good student going wrong, asked the office to intervene. "They used to give me this little paper that I had to show to my teachers every time I went to class," said Yecenia, "and they had to fill in what time I arrived and what time I left." Counselor Cheryl Noorani also took an interest, said Yecenia: "She was on my case 24/7. 'Yecenia go to class, Yecenia do your work.' Yecenia this, Yecenia that. 'If you don't go to class you're going to get kicked out.' She used to tell me a lot of things."

"I was rebellious in a way," said Yecenia. "I wanted to do my own thing, and I thought school wasn't important at the time. So I decided to adventure in the world." In June of 2000, near the end of what should have been her junior year -- if she'd had enough credits -- she headed to Texas with her boyfriend, who was about a year older and also a dropout from Manual Arts.

Noorani, the counselor who tried to help, has been part of a special campus committee that focuses on students at risk of dropping out. The committee includes counselors, a psychiatric social worker, the school nurse, a probation officer and Spanish-speaking clerical help for communicating with families. This effort has almost certainly helped some students. The school also won a grant to pay for a dropout-prevention coordinator.

But Manual Arts lost its grant after the 1999-2000 school year, based largely on a critical review by state evaluators. They wrote that Manual Arts' support team "does not seem to monitor an actual caseload of students/families identified as needing immediate assistance" and that the school "produced no quantitative evidence to support claims" of success. Moreover, "Few meetings include the parent, the student and the required personnel."

If the volunteer evaluators had been able to look more closely, they would have noticed additional causes for concern. For one thing, when the Weekly requested payroll records, the school could not produce documentation to verify that the money was spent as specified within the grant. As a result, it's not clear how all the money was spent, although school administrators insist the money was properly used.

Also, Manual Arts grant applications contained wild statistical disparities from year to year. In one application, the dropout rate was listed as 5 percent for 1997-98; the next year, '97-'98 was given a dropout rate of 30.3 percent. And in the following year's application, the dropout rate for '97-'98 was 10.6 percent. Meanwhile, the official number sent to the state for '97-'98 was 0.2 percent. So did Manual Arts lose seven students that year, or was it 1,180? The school jockeyed data like a Merrill Lynch broker giving stock tips. And in Yecenia's case, for one, the recorded information bore little relation to what was really happening.

THE STATE DEFINES DROPOUTS AS students who leave school before graduating and who do not have their academic records forwarded to another school within 45 school days. Forty-five days works out to at least nine full weeks of school. That's a long period to wait before tabulating a dropout, and L.A. Unified stretches the span well beyond that.

How is it that a dropout isn't counted as one? The Weekly was able to trace Yecenia's path through paperwork purgatory by examining documents that the school district supplied, in redacted form, after repeated public-records requests over a period of nearly a year.

Yecenia said she dropped out in May 2000 and was headed to Texas by June. But in the universe of Manual Arts dropout documentation, something else happened. A school notation records that Yecenia was not, in fact, a dropout, but that she'd left Manual Arts to enroll at nearby Metro High, which is a "continuation" school, a special small school for students who have fallen behind in credits. The notation claims that Metro High "requested" Yecenia's records on June 28, 2000. Metro High, however, has no record for Yecenia from that period, which is logical, given that she was en route to Texas.

Manual Arts staffers say this notation was simply a mistake. Critics have asserted, however, that any number of schools manipulate the transfer process to improve their statistics and thus their image.

In 1997, Bryan Steele, then a teacher at Bell High, publicly accused that school's administrators of dumping students into other off-campus programs to improve attendance and dropout rates. Steele also alleged that Bell High would temporarily "check out" students who were absent for a few days due to illness or travel -- even when they weren't dropouts and weren't departing the school. In other words, these absent students were allegedly "unenrolled" -- as though they had moved away permanently -- and then later re-enrolled, so their absences wouldn't count against Bell's attendance rate. At the time, Bell High was winning school-attendance awards, even though its ninth-graders, like those at Manual Arts, were disappearing at an astonishing rate prior to graduation. Steele's account was anecdotally corroborated by several students who spoke with the Weekly. District officials, however, insisted that they investigated Steele's allegations and found them to be groundless. The district also refused to release records that could have verified or refuted Steele's claims.  

Senior administrators -- then and now -- have pointed out that transferring floundering students into different programs or schools is not the same as discarding them, if that new setting has a chance to turn them around. But these transfers are nonetheless a form of statistical dumping. The former school erases a dropout by transferring a student, regardless of whether that student ultimately drops out. In particular, students who are moved to adult school never are counted as dropouts anywhere, regardless of what happens to them.

The adult-school dodge, which is permitted by California, but not by most other states, is especially noisome. An L.A. Unified adult school does not typically accept a permanent transfer unless that student is, by definition, a dropout. But that dropout isn't counted as one even though, in the end, few adult-school students ever graduate. Fewer than 4 percent of first-year adult-school students either complete graduation credits or obtain a General Educational Development (GED) certificate. (L.A. Unified didn't provide numbers beyond the first year.)

And getting a GED isn't that much better than dropping out in terms of end results. Some researchers have concluded that GED holders do no better than dropouts. "Counting GEDs in the same group as those awarded regular diplomas masks the true graduation rate," wrote Jay P. Greene, a senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and author of a landmark dropout study commissioned by the Black Alliance for Educational Options. Greene counts GED holders and adult-school transfers as dropouts -- because both groups have left high school and suffer accordingly.

The adult-school shift partly explains why the combined total of graduates and "official" dropouts (which should account for nearly all students) doesn't come close to equaling the number of seventh-graders or even the number of ninth-graders. A study out of the U.S. Department of Education, which analyzed California data from 1993 through 1995, estimated that doing nothing more than properly classifying adult-school transfers as dropouts would have raised dropout totals statewide 36 to 72 percent, depending on the year.

"Once that record request goes to an adult program," said one high-level district administrator, who asked not to be named, "that youngster no longer exists for accountability purposes. Many secondary schools become very clever and will take youngsters who are dropout-prone, or who fit the dropout profile, and will hand-carry records to the adult school that is part of the same high school and enroll that student. And thereby ensure that this student will never count as a dropout in that school."

Not all of the adult schools' 350,000 students are dropouts: Some foreign students enroll to learn English; others seek specific job training; some high schoolers catch up on credits while still enrolled in their home school. But adult programs can permanently enroll students as young as 14 once they've been out of school 45 days, and can enroll anyone who is 18. And again, no one who leaves adult school without a degree will ever be counted as a dropout.

Per district policy, Manual Arts had no responsibility to report that Yecenia had dropped out; the central office alone calculates dropout rates from computerized attendance records.

For its part, Manual Arts does not easily confess to having dropouts, as evidenced by the school's monthly attendance summaries. These records, which are prepared at the school site, encode how many students enter and leave school, and for what reason. In the column "L2," for example, the "L" part means that the student "left," that is, stopped attending school at Manual Arts. And the "2" part is the code for where the student went. An "L2" is a Manual Arts student who left for another L.A. Unified school. The "L3" column contains the number of leavers who enrolled in a California school outside L.A. Unified, etc.

"L8" is where dropouts go -- as well as students who die or go to jail or otherwise exit Manual Arts prior to graduation without immediately enrolling in another school. In the three full school years ending with last June, Manual Arts tallied a total of five students in L8. Even if all five were dropouts, at that pace, Manual Arts would have less than one dropout per every 2,000 students. Yet Yecenia's class, when it graduated in June 2001, was 63 percent smaller than it had been in ninth grade.  

The school-district tabulation does only a little better. The central office flags "no-shows" once a year, in the spring. So even though Yecenia was long gone by the fall of 2000, she wasn't logged as a potential dropout until the spring of 2001. In other words, the school district didn't direct Manual Arts to find out what happened to Yecenia till about a year after she left. (This delayed reaction is in conflict with a separate district policy, which states that students should be regarded as no-shows as soon as they don't show in the fall.) In interviews, Yecenia also provided the name and birth date of her ex-boyfriend, who, she said, dropped out of Manual Arts a semester before she did. He never appeared on a no-show list.

One incentive for keeping no-shows on the books is that L.A. Unified funds schools largely based on enrollment, whether the student is present or not, which encourages campuses to keep vanished or banished students on roll sheets until "norm" day in October, when staffing and funding levels are set. Based on last year's numbers, each student is worth more than $5,000 to Manual Arts.

A low dropout rate also is good for a school's or a principal's reputation. In the case of Manual Arts, the reduction in dropouts helped get Wendell Greer center stage at a 1999 Washington, D.C., press conference with President Clinton, said former assistant principal Irene Anton, an enthusiastic supporter of Greer. Former district spokesman Brad Sales recalled another occasion, when L.A. Unified hosted its own press conference to celebrate Manual Arts' dropout achievements. Sales remembers that six TV crews answered the call.

"Everyone is kind of struggling with the best way to track these students," said Esther Wong, assistant superintendent for planning, assessment and research. At the district level, "If they drop off the radar screen, they are counted as a dropout."

Wong's distinction is dead-on accurate: Students are not counted as dropouts because they drop out. Rather, they are counted as dropouts if, after a year or so, a school neither records a specific fate for a student nor takes advantage of a loophole. One of Manual Arts' best recorded dropout rates was for 1998-1999, when the school reported that 40 percent of the students on its no-show list had transferred to the Manual Arts Adult School.

The only reason that L.A. Unified has any official dropouts at all is that some schools are not onto the game, and some administrators probably record data honestly, despite the disincentives.

In April 2001, nearly a year after she dropped out of Manual Arts, Yecenia's name appeared for the first time on the "no show" list of students that Manual Arts either had to account for or get dinged for.

The irony is that, by this time, Yecenia was a dropout who had dropped back in. She had learned a painful lesson in Texas when she'd looked for work: "Everywhere I went applying, it's: 'Do you have your diploma?' I would say, 'No,'" recalled Yecenia. "And they tell me, 'We'll call you back.' And they never did. That's when I started seeing how education is real important to me." Her parents sent her a plane ticket for home in December of 2000. The following February, on the advice of counselor Noorani, she enrolled at Metro, where she has thrived.

At Metro, everyone is right on top of you, said Yecenia. "That's the whole thing. That's why I think I was more rebellious, because people didn't have me in check 24/7, like they do over here. Because this is a small school, they know your name, they know everything. You're not, like, as crazy, because you won't be able to do whatever you want." At Manual, "They can't keep on top of everybody in the school . . . They can't be watching you 24/7."

Yecenia shows up again in Manual Arts' records via a recorded "transcript request" from Metro High on April 30, 2001. This notation, too, is problematic. By this time, Yecenia had been at Metro for about three months; as a rule, her official records would have been requested in February.  

It's possible that Metro never received Yecenia's academic file and had to repeat the request in April. But it's also possible that this transcript request was part of an annual April scramble by Manual Arts to "clear" students whose names appear on the no-show list. On April 27, 2000, alone, Manual Arts claimed that transcript requests came in from 44 schools all over the country and world, including from New York, Nevada, Florida, Oklahoma and Colorado, not to mention Mexico and El Salvador. It would be an extraordinary coincidence for all these far-flung schools to call suddenly seeking a transcript on the same day. It's more likely that Manual Arts was doing the dialing, frantically trying to account for students who'd turned up on the district's no-show list. Whether all of this slapdash accounting was done honestly or accurately is anyone's guess.

IN 1994, BEFORE PRINCIPAL GREER ARrived at Manual Arts, more than a fourth of the school, 687 students, dropped out in a single year, according to state records. At that pace, there'd hardly be anybody left of an entering class of ninth-graders by graduation time four years later. By 1999, in contrast, only three students were listed as dropouts from a total of nearly 4,000, a phenomenal one-year rate of less than 0.1 percent.

Manual Arts may well have been doing better than before, but was the school doing as well as it claimed? And if so, how did Greer do it? When he was contacted several months ago, what Greer didn't say is as telling as what he did. He credited no particular dropout-prevention effort or change in school culture. Instead, Greer cited good record-keeping as the key ingredient.

Contacted again this month, Greer declined to be interviewed, but offered general comments in an e-mail: "During my watch as head of Manual Arts High School, my team and I built significantly on a foundation that had been established by predecessors. We were singularly 'student focused' as an administrative machine. We were successful in our goals to reinvigorate a school, community, student body and teaching population. We helped students improve in the Los Angeles Unified School District's then­'five benchmark areas' that served as indicators of schoolwide success: improved attendance, improved standardized test scores, improved disciplinary outcomes, improved bilingual student-redesignation rates, improved graduation and college-attendance rates. Manual Arts High School achieved those goals during our six years of working together. Teachers were challenged to teach; students were challenged to learn; the community and its politicians were challenged to care to make a difference. Together, we did."

Statistically, Manual Arts was the extreme, but it was not unique. In the mid-to-late 1990s, dropout rates districtwide plummeted precipitously. A graph of the improving dropout rates at numerous L.A. schools over the 1990s looks a lot like a graph of Manual Arts' rates over the same period.

Today, the reported dropout rate for L.A. Unified is 6.2 percent. That's a one-year rate. For a more accurate picture, multiply that number by four, to account for four years of dropouts from each class through its four years of high school. That adjusted number would be nearly 25 percent. For a truer picture still, compare the number of seventh-graders in L.A. Unified (50,102) with the number of graduates (27,579); the graduating class is 45 percent smaller.

School administrators often object to comparing incoming seventh-graders to the number of graduates from that same group six years later. They contend that many of the disappeared students aren't dropouts, that they've transferred to other schools or that their families have returned to Mexico, for example. Transiency is a real problem, but if students were transferring to other schools, and then graduating rather than dropping out, the cumulative numbers would back that up. And they don't. Researcher Jay Greene, for example, determined that only 56 percent of LAUSD's entering eighth-graders in 1993 graduated on time in 1998.

"You've got the issue of where the hell are these kids all going?" said UCLA's Catterall. "Do we have this big out-migration of families and kids from the LAUSD? I would doubt that a lot."

Other school districts offer the same sorry excuses to justify unbelievably low dropout rates, noted Marco Orlando, one of two state consultants who oversee the distribution of special dropout-prevention funds. "If you ask the school districts, they say these students went to another school or another school district. It's like Laurel and Hardy. Everybody's pointing at each other and saying, 'He went there.' So guess what? There doesn't seem to be a dropout problem in California, but 40 percent of our kids aren't attending school. There seems to be a 'flexible' understanding of what a dropout is."  

Some L.A. district officials acknowledge, off the record, that the dropout rate is misleading if not outright fraudulent. In 1999, district researchers did their own analysis of the percentage of students who completed high school in four years. Students reported as transfers were not counted (which improved schools' percentages): 52.6 percent of Manual Arts students failed to graduate on time. During that same year, Manual Arts claimed that only three students of nearly 4,000 (less than 0.1 percent) had dropped out.

Regardless of accounting procedures, schools remain responsible both for teaching students and for recognizing students in trouble and helping them, insisted Assistant Superintendent Wong. And no one at Manual Arts would take issue with that.

"We try to keep track of our no-shows, because you want to know where those kids are. We have a responsibility," said counselor Noorani. "We want to get everyone to be tracking where did this kid go, because we don't want to generate a dropout . . . and we also want to provide a service." Noorani pointed out that a number of district programs aim at helping troubled or unsuccessful students, and she commented that it's not fair to make Manual Arts responsible for all the students who don't make it, when she and others are trying so hard to help.

And Manual Arts is still trying. Current principal Ed Robillard has overseen the installation of new iron fencing that is too strong for students to cut through or pull apart, a project that began under Greer. And students outside of class are supposed to display oversize, brightly colored laminated passes, so staffers can immediately spot who's ditching.

Manual Arts sits at the back end of a systemic failure, one that reaches back into how well students are prepared for entering high schools and that takes in the pressures of gangs, poverty and family dissolution. But at the very least, schools have a duty to acknowledge honestly what is happening to students.

The state of California is a co-conspirator in any number of ways. For one thing, California has yet to fully fund a statewide computerized system that could track the fate of individual students. Nor have school districts been mandated to take part. A bill now in the Legislature, sponsored by state Senator Dede Alpert (D­San Diego), would require districts to get on board with this student-information system. Reforms at the federal level are also pushing this change.

In addition, the state should count as a dropout every student who leaves traditional school, except in limited cases. At the same time, a new category should give school districts credit for recovered dropouts -- those students who come back to earn a degree. Either that or do away with dropout rates entirely, and replace them with graduation rates measuring how many students get their diplomas on schedule.

"If you're a very knowledgeable administrator who understands these numbers, it is very easy to assemble a zero-percent dropout rate," said one senior district official, who requested anonymity. "It's about gaming it. You could have a whole district showing a zero-percent dropout rate."

Concealing a problem too often becomes tantamount to ignoring it. Let's say, by way of comparison, that city officials decided to undercount the poor and unemployed and then claimed that the city had no poverty, even if it did. And that it was even okay for the city to say it once had this problem, but poverty had been spectacularly erased. If a city could get away with this, would its leaders actually devote the proper time and resources to address poverty? And if it did, on what information would this effort be based or assessed, if the data had all the reliability of snake oil?

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