Volunteers expect to re-enroll hundreds of high school dropouts in Los Angeles

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Corey Moore/KPCC

A break between classes at Venice High School. Volunteers gathered there for "Student Recovery Day."

Starting today, L.A. Unified school officials expect hundreds of truants will return to class. That’s because last week they went looking for them.

One 19-year-old student couldn’t stop beaming as she returned to Venice High School to re-enroll. The young lady, who preferred not to give her name, is five credits shy of graduating. Last school year, she got pregnant. After her son was born in April, she dropped out of Venice High.

“After I gave birth, you couldn’t go back to school for six weeks,” she said. “And that was really close to my graduation time. So I was just home most of the time, so I didn’t get to pass one of my classes.”

That class is government. And today, the young student who enjoyed playing varsity basketball for Venice High is back in school, ready to finish. Her return to class started with a knock at her door about a mile way from the school. She lives at the Mar Vista Gardens Housing Project in southwestern Los Angeles.

School district counselor Steve Blustajn paid a visit to the young mother’s home. Her brother lives there, too. He also dropped out of high school. Blustajn got them both to come back. Just one of a few successful visits he and others have made.

“Some of the parents were home. And their student or their child was home and we’d ask why are they out of school,” said Blustajn. “And for various reasons, we’d ask them to come back. Some had more severe issues than others and we were all able to deal with the issues they had as far as bringing them back.”

More than a thousand volunteers across L.A. canvassed the neighborhoods, alleys and businesses – just about anywhere they knew dropouts hang out. On Friday, they convinced dozens of students to re-enroll without punishment for behavior problems or missing school.

Thirty-three-year-old volunteer Antonio Washington was eager to give his time. A former dropout himself, he got his GED – and now he works as a mentor to young people in Los Angeles.

“It’s a great way of giving back, so I think if they would have had this when I was in school, I probably wouldn’t have dropped out,” said Washington. “Even though I’m successful now and made a man of myself, I just think that it’s a good way to start now.”

As part of last Friday’s “Student Recovery Day,” Washington talked to restaurants, stores and other businesses in Venice and asked them if they’d be willing to report truants. They said they would.

The effort, organized for a third time, is the brainchild of school board member Steve Zimmer. He says most dropouts would rather be in school.

“A number of the cases I dealt with today directly had to deal with our economic crisis,” Zimmer said. “Not ‘I don’t care about school.’ Not ‘I don’t care about my son or daughter’s education.’ But ‘I gotta work three or four jobs and I can’t be involved in the way I need to be or want to be.’”

After visiting 400 families, Zimmer and other volunteers at Venice High were able to re-enroll dozens of dropouts.

And that young mom, who’s only five credits away from graduation, is glad she’s back. She wants a career in criminal justice and is determined to get it.

“It’s gonna be much, much harder but I’ll get through it because it’s just life,” she emphasized. “You go through obstacles that you need to get through and when you get through them, you get through them.”

About a quarter of L.A.’s high school students don’t graduate. But with this young mom and a few hundred more dropouts expected back in class today, the stats just got a little better.

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