|Oswaldo Ortega, 20, dropped out of North Dallas High near Uptown during his sophomore year to support his pregnant girlfriend. He’s now back in school and needs to pass two courses to graduate.
photography by Allison V. Smith
With his mother and brother looking on, 20-year-old Oswaldo Ortega stands at a podium on the front steps of North Dallas High School, on Haskell Avenue, and sputters into a microphone: “If you want to go back to school, it’s easy.” Next to him stand Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert and DISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa. Each addresses a platoon of drowsy reporters on a Saturday morning about the unacceptably high dropout rate in DISD schools and what the city and the district plan to do about it.
From there, on this day in early September, Leppert, Hinojosa, and others light out on a door-to-door campaign to convince dropouts to give school a second go. It’s part of a program called Operation Comeback, modeled after a similar effort begun in 2004 by Houston Mayor Bill White.
This dropout issue has pinned both Ortega and Hinojosa to a wall. Ortega, because he knows that the longer he stays out of school, the worse his chances are of working anywhere but at a Dollar Store or on a construction site, like his dad. And Hinojosa, because if dropout rates don’t improve, eight of the school district’s 22 high schools could be rated “academically unacceptable” by the state—a rating that, in the worst case scenario, could lead to the state taking them over.
Exactly how many kids drop out of DISD schools is a matter of heated debate. Earlier this year, DISD made headlines when a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit called America’s Promise Alliance released a study of the graduation rates in the country’s 50 largest cities. The study put DISD’s graduation rate in 2004 at a meager 44 percent, ranking it seventh-worst in the nation. But where did those ninth-graders go who didn’t finish 12th grade? Did they really give up on school? Or did they simply move to another district? Urban school districts populated with lower-income families have high student mobility rates. The Texas Education Agency says America’s Promise underestimates DISD’s graduation rate. Even with a counting system recently made more stringent, the TEA puts DISD’s graduation rate for the 2005-2006 school year (the most recent data available) at almost 69 percent.
In any case, everyone agrees that too many kids in the district don’t get a diploma. To combat the problem, DISD has taken some controversial measures. And it has taken a hard look at its student population.
TWO WEEKS AFTER HIS SPEECH with the mayor, Ortega greets me at his North Carroll Avenue home, about a half-mile from North Dallas High, where he dropped out during his sophomore year. He wonders where I parked my car. He didn’t see it when he came out to get me. It’s around the corner, I tell him. “Do you want to pull it into our driveway?” he asks. I point out that it’s broad daylight and that I drive a 1997 Honda Civic. Just the same, Ortega says.
Then he tells the story of why he dropped out. His girlfriend got pregnant, and he needed to earn money to support her and their unborn child. She was 14 and he was 15 when they started dating. He was her first kiss, her first boyfriend. So he quit school to get a job.
But the pregnancy was the beginning of the end for the couple. They broke up on Valentine’s Day. “When we broke up, I just called it quits,” he says. “Because I not only lost the girl I love, I lost my daughter.”
Imagine this level of complication times 2,267, roughly the number of students from the class of 2007 who dropped out of Dallas high schools (depending on your formula). The state of Texas once tried to figure out where these dropouts go. Once. Researchers looked at students statewide in grades seven through 12 who dropped out in the 2004-2005 school year. For two-thirds of the dropouts, the reason for leaving school was reported as unknown. Of those who did give a reason for dropping out, most said it was because they were discouraged by their low grades. Only about 1 percent said they dropped out because they had babies [see chart on opposite page for breakdown].
Seeking to address the No. 1 cause of dropouts, the district cast its lot with the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago. The consortium found that when students flunk classes early in their high school careers, it’s very likely that they’ll drop out of school later. “At the very least, we can use freshman course performance to identify students at risk of dropping out to target with support and intervention,” a July 2007 consortium research report says. “At the most, if schools and teachers can influence the quality of students’ performance in their coursework, then they have a direct lever to affect graduation rates—a lever that should simultaneously improve student achievement.”
Six large districts across the United States—Dallas; Omaha; Philadelphia; Albuquerque; Prince George’s County, Maryland; and Rochester, New York—are working with the consortium to reduce their dropout rates. “We wanted districts who shared issues with Chicago,” says Tracy Dell’Angela, the consortium’s spokeswoman. “A lot of districts we have are mid to large districts, and they want to use good research and good data so they’re not floundering.”
Based on the consortium’s research, beginning with the 2008-2009 school year DISD sought to reduce the dropout rate by relaxing consequences for students who turn in homework late and for those who get low test scores. With broad brush strokes, the grading system works like this for middle and high school students: teachers may accept late homework, giving reduced grades according to teacher-developed policies; students who flunk major tests can retake them and record the higher score; and teachers are encouraged to contact parents before giving a zero to students who don’t turn in assignments.
When word got out, teachers, parents, and business leaders were outraged. Many parents labeled the district’s policy a prettified version of social promotion. It didn’t help that the district fumbled the explanation by offering conflicting stories to the news media.
But David Chard, dean of SMU’s Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development, came to the district’s defense in a Dallas Morning News op-ed column. He called it “a laudable attempt to prevent students from dropping out.” “Given that traditional approaches have not been successful,” Chard wrote, “this policy should be implemented and carefully evaluated to determine its effectiveness. As a veteran educator and Dallas resident, I am impressed by the progress DISD has demonstrated in the past year … .”
The new grading policy isn’t the only controversial step the district has taken to curb the dropout rate. At the end of last school year, the New York Times ran a story on DISD’s small experimental program to use GPS monitors to track chronically truant students. There were complaints about the monitors’ invasiveness—but they worked.
Another approach the district has taken to reducing dropouts is decidedly less high tech. It focuses on a language barrier. According to the state, about a third of DISD’s students are not proficient in English. Most of those kids speak Spanish. And more Hispanic kids drop out every year than any other ethnic group.
Enter Florencia Velasco Fortner, CEO of Dallas Concilio, a social services organization that focuses on education. This year, Concilio is working with 20 DISD schools, up from 15 last year, to improve the graduation rate for Hispanics. Fortner says the challenge is bigger than just overcoming the language barrier. It’s a cultural issue. She says that in Mexico and parts of Central America, parents seldom go to their child’s school unless that child is causing problems. She says in those cultures, it’s not acceptable to pose questions to teachers and others in authority.
Parents enroll in Concilio (which, in English, means “council” or “assembly”) as if it were a class. They learn that parents are expected to involve themselves in their child’s education, in everything from providing supplies to creating a peaceful, clear area for homework. Concilio also takes Hispanic students on field trips to local universities. Ultimately, the group hopes that parental involvement will boost the number of Hispanic students who continue on to college.
“Family is the most important thing in the Hispanic community,” Fortner says. “Mothers make the most decisions on how to meet their goals.” So far, 3,100 parents have graduated from Dallas Concilio’s course.
Now that he’s back in school at North Dallas High, Oswaldo Ortega has his sights set on exactly that: college. His father was born in the countryside near the city of Durango, in Mexico; his mother is from San Luis Potosí, an urban capital in central Mexico. They left their family in Mexico when they were young and moved to Dallas for a better life. Now his mother owns her own bookkeeping business and is working to get a four-year degree in accounting. Ortega says she’s his inspiration. “My mom said she wants me to have a better life,” he says. “And I want to give my daughter a better life than what I have.”
He has to complete courses in chemistry and history before he can get his degree. He says his grades are good. It’s just that he’s got to worry about taking care of his daughter.
“When you’re young,” he says, “you don’t know what the consequences are.”