Devon Sanford’s mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer when he was in the eighth grade. After barely finishing at Henry Clay Middle School in South Los Angeles, he never enrolled in high school. He spent what should have been his freshman year caring for his mother and waiting for 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.”
Thousands of students in California public schools never make it to the ninth grade. According to state officials, 7th and 8th grade dropouts added up to more than 6,400 in the 2012-13 school year – more than 1,000 in the Los Angeles Unified School District alone.
Like Sanford, many of them just disappeared after middle school and never signed up for high school.
But their numbers are so tiny in comparison to California’s more than 94,000 high school dropouts each year that few school districts are paying attention to middle school dropouts.
One sign of the inattention: a 2009 state law mandating California education officials calculate a middle school dropout rate has gone largely ignored, although districts do publicly report the raw numbers.
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 schools often aren’t able to track them down, according to several educators in L.A. Unified.
“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,” said Linda Guthrie, who teaches English at Thomas Starr King Middle School in Hollywood. “Schools don’t have the resources to go out and find those no shows.”
King, where nearly three-quarters of the students qualify for free- or reduced-priced lunch, had nine dropouts in 2012-13 school year. Like many schools, King relies on robo-calls to inform parents when kids miss school. It has one attendance clerk for 1,500 students, down from four seven years ago.
Recessionary budget cuts have also made it hard for staff to keep track of students at Thomas Edison Middle School, a predominately Hispanic and low-income school in South Los Angeles.
The school has a single full-time employee to crunch attendance numbers for 1,151 students - and call parents when kids don’t show up. The school shares one truancy officer with four other middle schools. In early December, he realized one child had missed three straight weeks of school.
In the 2011-12 school year, five seventh and eighth graders dropped out of Edison.
“I’m happy to say we only have five,” Lua Masumi, community school coordinator who helps set up academic, health and social services for students, said last winter. “But I’m sad we have five.”
Experts said the reasons kids drop out in 7th or 8th grade are similar to the reasons high schoolers give up. They range from problems at home or gang involvement to failing academics and losing interest in their classes. Often it’s a combination.
Melissa Wyatt, executive director of Foundation for Second Chances, a Los Angeles-based community organization that runs educational and mentoring programs for youth, said in some cases, like Sanford’s, parents pulled the 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,” Wyatt said. She said it’s more prevalent in immigrant communities.
Experts said if one thing will help these kids stay in school, it’s personalized attention. But that doesn’t come cheap.
In 2010, L.A. Unified started the “diploma project” at Robert Peary Middle School in Gardena.
One full time staffer was assigned to monitor the grades, attendance and behavior of 70 students who were identified at risk for dropping out based on attendance rates and grades. It is a tiny portion of the school’s more than 1,800 students.
Beverly Evans meets with parents, teachers and the students themselves on a regular basis to find out what’s causing problems - or just to reiterate the importance of trying to succeed in school.
“Our title is graduation promotion counselor,” she said. “But I really call us mother, father, brother, sister.”
The program is funded by a five-year, $11.6 million grant from the Obama Administration’s High School Graduation Initiative and covers five other middle schools and six high schools. In 2013, only 2 percent of 8th graders in Diploma Project schools failed to sign up for 9th grade - compared with 11 percent in 2011. But those kids may not have all been dropouts - some of the kids may have had to repeat the 8th grade.
Some educators are adamant the high school dropout problem must be attacked in middle school.
“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 who oversees things like dropout prevention and mental health services district-wide.
Johns Hopkins researchers found students who drop out in high school showed warning signs as early as middle school. Those who did poorly in the 6th grade had a 10 to 20 percent chance of graduating high school.
Among the dropouts, some do make it back – eventually – driven mostly by few job prospects.
After a year off caring for his mother and reeling from her death from cancer, Sanford bounced around a few schools in L.A. Unified.
He eventually moved in with his father in San Bernardino and enrolled in YouthBuild, a charter school for former dropouts.
He graduated high school this summer, at age 19.
Cheryl Traylor, a counselor at YouthBuild, said Sanford is a rare success story for middle school dropouts. Those who have enrolled at her school have a harder time than high school dropouts, she said, because they are so far behind and have often been out of school for longer.
“They didn’t stay,” she said. “They struggled.”
This story has been updated.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University. Hechinger’s coverage of California’s achievement gap - and the efforts to close it - can be found here.