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San Diego Schools Use Mentoring To Keep At-Risk Students On Graduation Track

Sam Verdin, left, and Jesus Najera talk about their high school troublemaking and the mentoring that turned them around at San Diego's Mission Valley Mall, Aug. 28, 2012.
Kyla Calvert
Sam Verdin, left, and Jesus Najera talk about their high school troublemaking and the mentoring that turned them around at San Diego's Mission Valley Mall, Aug. 28, 2012.
San Diego Schools Use Mentoring To Keep At-Risk Students On Graduation Track
San Diego Unified has made strides in reducing the number of students who drop out. Officials believe mentoring for students most in danger of leaving school without a diploma is making a difference.

When California released dropout and graduation data for the class of 2011 earlier this summer, San Diego city schools stood out. The district’s dropout rate was just 5.9 percent. The next best rate for a large, urban school district in the state was 10.6 percent. According to school officials, part of the district's success comes from combing through data to identify and reach out to students like Jesus Najera.

Hanging out at Mission Valley Mall with friends is something Najera used to do a lot. But, he said, now he’s got other things to keep him busy.

“I have to be supportive of my family," he said. "So I’m a security officer right now. I’m probably going to go back to City College, start up my criminal justice career.”

College wasn’t always on his radar. Years at a now-closed middle school with a reputation for violence didn’t prepare Najera for success as a freshman at James Madison High School in Clairemont Mesa.

“Beating up teachers, throwing stuff at them, riots almost everyday. So from that perspective, just trying to stay there and just basically passing classes with B's, C’s, whatever was possible, just to pass the class,” he said.

He had all the hallmarks of a student who might drop out -- low grades, lots of absences and run-ins with teachers. He also came from a low-income household, with parents who had little education themselves and whose first language was Spanish.

All that brought him to the attention of Madison’s vice principal Richard Nash. He had volunteered to lead a pilot program mentoring a group of ten boys.

“All of them had less than a GPA of 2.0, they had missed at least six days in the previous year and had at least one suspension,” Nash said.

After recruiting the students, he checked in with each one every day for the next four years.

“Just to say ‘hey, look, I’m here,’" he said. "A lot of times as individuals we only search for help when we’re overwhelmed. And we don’t ever want students who are struggling to get to the point where they’re overwhelmed. Because these students didn’t have the skill set to deal with those things.”

At first, the whole thing seemed kind of weird to Najera.

“All the attention we were getting that we didn’t get from other teachers seemed like out of our comfort zone," he said, remembering the group's early days on a bench in Mission Valley. "Once we got the attention, I decided, 'oh, well, might as well take a chance on it, see what happens, go through there.'”

The boys had to hit GPA targets each year to participate in a celebratory fishing trip. And Nash pushed them to get involved in extracurriculars and take on leadership rolls in school and out. They met twice a week for the first three years of their high school careers and worked on things like staying organized, completing homework on time and even better ways to manage anger. As seniors they took on mentees of their own, freshmen who, Najera said, reminded him all too much of himself.

Nine of Nash’s mentees graduated on time and the last one is on track to finish the make-up classes he needs by October.

In 2009, federal stimulus dollars paid to expand mentoring for boys and girls to 16 schools. That money is gone now, but the district isn’t giving up on in-school mentoring. Five full-time mentors were hired with a grant from the American Institute of Research.

They work with about 50 students apiece, meeting with them weekly to check in on grades, class completion, behavior issues, or anything else they might be struggling with. Brisa Rodriguez is one of the new mentors. She had been a volunteer one-on-one mentor before, but said her expectations for her students now are much more structured.

At a training the week before school started, the mentors talked about some of the same issues Nash faced: finding their students to check in with them and getting the kids to buy into the idea that finishing high school matters. They're following a program developed at the University of Minnesota called Check and Connect. The American Institute of Research is following their mentees and a control group of 300 students who aren't getting additional support to see whether focused mentoring makes a marked difference.

Becky Phillpott is the district's dropout prevention program manager. With state funding dependent on student attendance, she believes mentoring programs are investments with real financial returns.

“Of course I’m hoping and I’m anticipating that we show that it does have a meaningful impact and it is cost effective by keeping kids in school, it’s worth it,” she said.

She's already looking for money to replace the research grant when it runs out in 2014, but she also works on lots of other programs like district efforts to improve attendance at all grade levels and an online credit recovery program that lets students retake failed classes at their own pace. She's also part of a committee that is working on making discipline policies more uniform across all district schools.

All of these efforts are part of the district's focus on making every child feel like a valued member of their school community and like school is a place they want to be, according to San Diego Unified Superintendent Bill Kowba.

"You can get caught up in a reduction of facilities or a loss of funding and delusion of programs and say 'I can only do so much,'" he said, which it would be easy to do in large, urban school districts reeling from state budget cuts across California. "But what we're going to do is focus on children and on making schools welcoming and necessary and important for them."

Ideally, Becky Phillpott said she is working toward a day when all school staff will reach out to students who need extra support, not just mentors.

“Where we’re not letting kids slip through the cracks and we’re doing this kind of specific work, where we see uh oh, this kid’s falling off track, we better figure out some way to get him or her into an academic program that’ll meet their needs,” she said.

At Madison, where Richard Nash is now principal, they’re already doing this kind of work. Nash still mentors five students himself, but this summer his counselors were also hard at work.

“Looking at those transcripts, identifying students that had failed a course or that had excessive absences and they go on our list at the beginning of the year -- I call it our watch list -- the students we make sure we’re going to engage 30 times in 30 days of school to make sure that they’re on track.”

It seems to be paying off. Madison’s on-time graduate rate went from 84.5 to 92.1 percent in 2011. For students like Jesus Najera, those results can be hard won. As a sophomore, Najera missed two weeks of school when his son was born. Then an emergency surgery for the baby had him out for another week. He was thinking about leaving school to get a job when Nash showed up at his door.

“I don’t live in the good neighborhood to begin with. It was kind of weird," he said. "So I was kind of like, 'oh he really wants me to finish high school.' He motivated me. So I’m like, if he’s doing all of this for me, nominating me for the group, I have to give him something on my part. And I did by graduating high school.”

Next week, staff and volunteers will be looking for more Jesus Najeras. They’ll make phone calls and knock on doors to find students who didn’t show up for the first week of school.