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LOS ANGELES – Devon Sanford’s mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer when he was in the eighth grade. After barely finishing at Los Angeles’s Henry Clay Middle School, he never enrolled in high school. Instead, he spent what should have been his freshman year caring for his mother and waiting for the police to show up asking why he wasn’t in school. No one ever came.

“That was the crazy part,” he said. “Nobody called or nothing.”

Although the majority of dropouts leave in high school, thousands of California students never make it to the ninth grade. Legislative efforts to draw attention to the problem have fallen by wayside. With most dropout prevention and recovery efforts centered on the upper grades – and previous statewide budget problems that cut resources – these students slip through the cracks early on and are faced with bleak futures unless they find their own way back.

middle school dropout
Devon Sanford dropped out of school the summer before ninth grade to take care of his sick mother, making him one of the thousands of California middle school dropouts who go largely unnoticed.

“How these kids never get on the radar – how is it that nobody realized they never started high school – it’s baffling,” said Phil Matero, director of YouthBuild Charter School of California, a school that enrolls former dropouts in the Los Angeles area.

For more than two decades, California, like several states, has recorded the thousands of students who leave school during seventh and eighth grade. In 2012-2013, for instance, more than 6,400 middle schoolers dropped out, according state Department of Education data.

A 2009 bill pushed the state to go further and required publication of a middle school dropout rate, which, much like a high school dropout rate, would compare all students who started in seventh grade to those that enrolled in ninth grade two years later. The state has never produced this figure.

Tina Jung, a spokesperson for the Department of Education, said that it does not receive extra funding to comply and that calculating the middle school dropout rate requires additional money.

Budget cuts aren’t an excuse, according to former-State Senator Gloria Romero. “The Department of Education can’t just pick and choose what it wants to do because it doesn’t like the funding,” said Romero, who sponsored the 2009 legislation. “The law is the law.”

Middle school “has too long been ignored,” she added.

California’s high school dropouts are more numerous, and receive more attention. For the class of 2012-2013, California had an 11.4 percent high school dropout rate, losing more than 56,000 students.  Annual press releases about high school graduation statistics only briefly mention the fact that many students drop out before ninth grade.

“How these kids never get on the radar – how is it that nobody realized they never started high school – it’s baffling,” — Phil Matero, director, YouthBuild Charter

But research has shown that warning signs that a student might drop out appear as early as middle school, even if the student doesn’t drop out until later. A number of educators have fought for more attention to be paid to middle school and middle school dropouts.

“If you’re waiting until high school to do dropout prevention, you’re waiting way too long,” said Debra Duardo, executive director of the Los Angeles School District’s Office of Student Health and Human Services.

Middle schoolers drop out for any number of reasons. Some join gangs and some struggle with academics and lose interest in their classes. Others are bullied or have problems at home. Often it’s a combination. One student who sought help at El Nido Family Center, a Los Angeles social service nonprofit, began spending time with gang members. His middle school ultimately kicked him out and he was assigned to another more than an hour away by bus, El Nido staff said. He was too disinterested in school to make the commute worthwhile and dropped out.

California requires students to attend school until they are 18, meaning these young dropouts and their parents are breaking the law and could be fined as a result. But parents busy working to make ends meet might not be able to carefully monitor their child’s attendance, said Melissa Wyatt, executive director of Foundation for Second Chances, a Los Angeles-based community organization.

Other times, parents are the ones who pull their children out of school to work or care for younger siblings or elderly relatives. “Kids are taking care of their grandparents and parents at a younger and younger age,” said Wyatt, who has tried to help many middle school dropouts get back to school. She said the problem is particularly acute among immigrant parents who may not “understand what [being a] dropout means, how that effects them for the rest of their life.”

Sanford’s mother didn’t want him to drop out, but the two had limited options. His father no longer lived at home. His older sister helped when she could, but with a newborn to take care of her attention was divided. So it was Sanford, 14 at the time, who accompanied his mother to radiation treatments and helped her bathe.

His former middle school, Henry Clay – which has since closed and been reopened as a charter school – used to be one of the leading producers of school year seventh and eighth grade dropouts in Los Angeles. Eighteen dropped out in the 2009-2010 school year alone.

Most middle schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) report a much smaller number of dropouts to the California Department of Education – but they add up. As the largest district in the state, it consistently has the highest number of seventh and eighth graders leaving school.

According to the state Department of Education data, about 75 percent of Los Angeles schools that enrolled seventh and eighth graders in 2012-2013 reported at least one student in those grades who dropped out. In total, more than 1,000 LAUSD students dropped out of seventh or eighth grade.

At Thomas Edison Middle School, a predominately Hispanic and low-income school in South LA, staff say budget cuts in recent years have made it difficult to keep track of students. In the 2011-2012 school year, five seventh and eighth graders out of 1,151 dropped out.

“I’m happy to say we only have five,” Lua Masumi, community school coordinator, said last winter. “But I’m sad we have five.”

There is one full-time employee to crunch the attendance numbers and call parents to get excuses for absences. She rarely succeeds in getting a reason. The school used to have a full-time Pupil Services and Attendance (PSA) counselor to help the attendance clerk go after truants. Last year, they shared one with four middle schools.

The school’s dean also pitches in to contact parents if a student is frequently absent – five times in a month, for instance, would merit his attention. But occasionally, a student’s absences go unnoticed for longer. In early December, the school’s PSA officer realized that one child had missed three straight weeks.

Thomas Edison’s situation is not unique. Last school year, Hollywood’s Thomas Starr King Middle School had more than 1,500 students, a 90 percent attendance rate and no PSA councilor. It had one attendance clerk, down from four seven years ago. The school, which had nine dropouts in 2012-2013 and where nearly three-quarters of students qualify for free- or reduced-priced lunch, relies on robo calls to follow up on absences.

“You get what you pay for,” said Linda Guthrie, who teaches English at King. “Do you devote resources to the kids who are here or not here? I know it sounds really cruel, but out of sight out of mind… Schools don’t have the resources to go out and find those no shows.”

It’s a problem that the school district is well aware of. It’s trying to relieve the schools of some responsibilities, like notifying parents after three unexcused absences, and Duardo’s office now sends out a monthly attendance report to schools with trends and suggestions.

LAUSD officials are also pushing dropout programs down to the middle school level with a program paid for by an $11.6 million federal grant from the Obama administration’s High School Graduation Initiative.

Using these federal funds, school districts in Mississippi, New York and Texas have set up programs that work with both middle school and high school dropouts. Under LAUSD’s program, the Diploma Project, district officials crunched numbers for indicators like test scores and attendance rates for students at six middle and six high schools to identify those most at risk.

From there, it’s up to the designated staff at each school to ensure those students keep showing up. The program started at Robert Peary Middle School in 2010 with about 70 students. Beverly Evans was assigned the task of monitoring their grades, attendance and behavior and doing whatever it takes to improve those things or squash problems early on. She meets with parents, teachers and the students themselves on a regular basis to find out what’s causing issues or just to reiterate the importance of trying in school.

“Our title is graduation promotion counselor,” she said. “But I really call us mother, father, brother, sister.”

LAUSD officials cited early signs of success of the program. Dropout rates at all the Diploma Project high schools are down. Only 2 percent of students at the middle schools didn’t matriculate to ninth grade in 2013, compared to 11 percent of students in 2011.

The middle schools in the program continue to lose students throughout the school year, though, according to state data. At Peary, for instance dropouts have ranged from seven to a dozen of students annually since 2010. But Evans says that none that have been enrolled in her program have dropped out. She and other staff members have even followed up with former eighth-graders to make sure they’ve made the transition to high school.

It’s the kind of attention that Sanford never got. His mother passed away about a year after he dropped out. He says it was always understood that he would go back to school, but after a year off and still dealing with his loss, reentry was difficult. He bounced around a few schools in LAUSD before ending up at San Bernardino’s YouthBuild Inland Empire, a charter school for former dropouts. He graduated this summer at age 19.

Many middle school dropouts do attempt to get back to school once they realize how few job opportunities they have, recovery experts say, but often have a hard time coming back, particularly when they’ve missed out on important foundational middle school academics.

At his school, Sanford is an anomaly, according to counselor Cheryl Traylor. Most of the school’s students made it as far as high school before dropping out. She says other students who dropped out during or immediately after middle school have enrolled at YouthBuild, “but they didn’t stay. They struggled.”

Read more of Hechinger’s coverage of California’s achievement gap and the efforts to close it.

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  1. Many factors contribute to the country’s dropout problem, and schools cannot be expected to battle all of society’s ills. However, schools can, despite limited resources, mount a strong effort to engage and retain their middle and high school students. One way is to create a college-going culture, one that instills in students the belief that they have many opportunities available to them beyond high school, including college, and that they can begin to plan for and work toward those opportunities now.

    Another way is to address student disengagement with a data-based intervention program beginning in sixth grade. By examining classroom and behavioral performance of students early in their middle school experience, educators can plan interventions that address particular needs before they become insurmountable barriers to academic success.

    Derek Mitchell, CEO
    Partners in School Innovation
    San Francisco, California

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