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BackFrom the Edge of Failure: They're Not Dropouts (sic) Anymore

Susan Notes: Kudos to Houston officials for making this effort. Many many huzzahs for the students for making this effort. Now officials need to revamp the test-driven curriculum so that students don't continue to be pushed out.

A 21-year-old mother living in one of Houston's poorest neighborhoods, Claudia Betancourt wasn't thinking about school when she heard a knock at the door last August.

Jobless and unsure of her future, Betancourt cracked the door to see Houston Independent School District Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra and about 20 volunteers waiting.

"The next thing you know, I looked up and my whole street was blocked," Betancourt said.

What would it take, they asked, to get her back in school and off HISD's dropout list?

Promises were made, and by day's end Betancourt was in the Furr High School nurse's office getting the immunization she needed to go back to school.

"One of my teachers helped me get a job at Fiesta," she said. Others lined up daytime childcare for her two young children.

This weekend, Betancourt and 47 other former dropouts coaxed back to school through HISD's Reach out to Dropouts program will get their diplomas. Most of the 291 returning students completed the school year that ends Thursday, Saavedra said.

"Some did, indeed, drop out again. But others stayed," he said. "I can't think of a day when I've been more proud to be superintendent."

HISD officials estimate that as many as 40 percent of the city's students never get a diploma. About a quarter of all incoming freshmen don't graduate on time.

Besides visiting the homes of dropouts from eight high schools, HISD hired dropout prevention specialists to work year-round tracking down missing students.

"Some of us might do 10 to 20 home visits in a day," said Jesus Soria, who is responsible for finding dropouts from Furr and Austin high schools. "Sixty percent of the time, we don't find them."

Saavedra plans to double the size of this year's dropout walk to include 16 high schools. About 500 people volunteered for last year's campaign.

"We had to get face to face with these young men and women and find out what their problems were and what we needed to do to get them back into school," Saavedra said.

Dropout specialist Burl Jones, who works at Jones and Yates high schools, said it took several visits to the home of Sedrick Walker's grandmother to get the 19-year-old back in school. Walker had left town to find a job.

But when the job fell through, Jones persuaded Walker to enroll in the Accelerated Learning and Transition Academy.

"I will be the first in my family to graduate," Walker said. He is taking classes to become certified to work on air conditioning systems.

Emmanuel Miranda quit Milby High School in 2003 hoping to make a living without a diploma.

"I was supposed to graduate last year in the class of 2004," he said. "But I messed up. I skipped class and tried for the Marines."

They wouldn't take him. Humbled, Miranda was willing to listen when a dropout prevention specialist visited midway through the school year. Miranda said he's proud to be graduating this weekend.

"If you don't try, you won't get anywhere," he said.


— Jason Spencer
Houston Chronicle


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