Blacks, Latinos lead Vallejo dropout rates
By Shauntel Lowe
The Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, CA), May 18, 2009
A ray of good news streamed into Vallejo this past week when state education officials released data showing a nearly 5 percent decline in the high school dropout rate.
But hold the confetti.
Lurking within the decline is a staggering stat: Almost half (48 percent) of African American males and a slightly smaller percentage of Latino students in the Vallejo City Unified School District drop out of high school.
The high school dropout rates for almost every racial group of Vallejo students exceeded the statewide rate last year, but none moreso than those of African American and Latino students.
The dropout rates for both groups — at 42.5 and 40.7 percent, respectively — are more than twice the statewide rate of 20.1 percent, according to the California Department of Education.
More than a third of Vallejo City Unified School District high school students drop out, according to state data.
In a district where minority students are, by far, the majority, any issue concentrated among students of color can become a major concern.
And right now, community leaders who work with the troubled demographics are worried.
'Nobody wants to admit that the system is failing such a large number of people,' said Joe Jones, current assistant executive director of the Association of California School Administrators and former Vallejo school board member and Hogan High School principal.
'We're in denial that it is a real issue and the fact that this is a problem,' Jones said.
Jones heads the Willie B. Adkins Scholars Program, which is geared toward increasing minority student admission to college. The program largely works with black students.
While earlier last week the program celebrated the acceptance of several of its students to colleges across the nation, from Morehouse College in Atlanta to San Francisco State University, Jones said many black students fail to see their potential.
'A lot of the students disconnect with schools based on existing — as they see it — barriers to their success,' Jones said.
Many students get caught up in peer pressure and the notion that 'being smart is not cool,' he said.
'Following instead of leading is the tenor of the times that we live in for a lot of our African American males,' Jones said. 'We've got to let them know they are born leaders.'
For both African American and Latino students, the challenges in graduating extend beyond high school hallways into the often lonely halls of their homes, community leaders say.
With more parents working, and more kids living in single-parent homes, many students head home with no one there to greet them, said Tony Pearsall, executive director of Fighting Back Partnership.
The partnership, focused on neighborhood revitalization, works to keep students in school through programming and outreach.
Pearsall said the absence of parents at home sometimes leaves students to get themselves into trouble.
Many Latino students also struggle with parents who do not speak English or who are in the country illegally, which can make them more reluctant to ask for help, Pearsall said.
'They won't come out and explain what their problems are,' Pearsall said.
But community and education leaders are waiting with answers.
Jones said the key to student retention is parental involvement and lessons that engage students and make them feel a part of a community at school.
Vallejo school district spokesman Jason Hodge said the district has after-school programs that can help struggling students.
Hodge said what many minority students, in particular, could use are mentors to help guide them.
'There's an additional level of support that a lot of our minorities are not getting and really need to have,' Hodge said.
Jones said teachers also don't have enough flexibility to pause and help students who are not grasping concepts due to state pacing and curriculum standards.
'That is not allowing a teacher to be a teacher and do the work they know is possible,' Jones said.
Both Jones and Pearsall said behavioral problems — from heavy gang activity among Latino students to classroom disruption leading to suspension among African American students — also contribute to the dropout problem.
But Jones said he believes with increased support and caring adults, the students can turn things around.