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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 28, 2006

NINTH GRADE A TIME OF PITFALLS
At graduation time, dropouts left behind

Interviews with student dropouts
 •  Nationwide dropout rate studies differ
 •  Hawai'i rate lower in national comparison

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer

High school dropout Rosanna Taimi, 17, starts her mornings taking care of her younger sister's baby. Taimi dropped out of Farrington High School during her freshman year, when she started having trouble with science and social studies. Now she can't find a job.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Marcelus Perofeta, 17, left, dropped out of Wai'anae High while his friend, Gellicah Teo, 17, and his cousin, James McKinnon, 17, dropped out of Farrington. All three are trying to finish high school in a competency-based diploma program. Perefota says that in high school, he only wanted to "hang out with my friends" but now they "never help me out."

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Sitting in the family carport in Kalihi, 18-year-old junior Ray Rivera explains in an interview he hasn't been in school for the past four months. No car, no spending money he's trying to decide how to resume school next year. He lost interest during his freshman year.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Rosanna Taimi should have been among the 10,700 high school seniors preparing to don cap and gown and walk proudly across the stages of school auditoriums and football fields in graduation ceremonies this week.

But there will be no graduation party, no applause from friends and family for Taimi or the approximately 1,700 other students statewide from the Class of 2006 who likely have dropped out since they entered as freshmen four years ago.

The pattern has changed little over the years. The dropout rate begins as a trickle among freshmen, and worsens over the next three years. What's different now is that ninth grade has become a focal point, with educators identifying it as the crossroads, the year when kids either make it or begin to struggle and lose hope.

That's where the problems began for Taimi. She started having trouble with science and social studies classes as a freshman at Farrington High.

Today she has joined the nearly 15 percent of students statewide who have been lost from every four-year high school class beginning with the Class of 2002.

If the rate holds this year, that's as many as 8,700 kids from the last five graduating classes who have quit school and disappeared into what one teacher calls "the black hole."

Once they leave, schools have little way of tracking them as addresses change and phones are disconnected.

And the dropout rate is worse at some schools than others. In 2004-05, the latest year for which Department of Education statistics are available, some schools had rates almost twice the state average. In many, the rate has been growing.

The highest in the state was Wai'anae High, with a dropout rate of 29.2 percent. That means nearly three of every 10 students who started ninth grade together four years earlier left school without graduating.

Close behind were McKinley High and Nanakuli High and Intermediate, with respective dropout rates of 26.5 percent and 26.6 percent, followed by Farrington High at 22.6 percent.

Taimi, 17, is one of the students behind those statistics. Now each day, instead of putting books into her backpack and preparing for class, she awakens before 6 a.m. to look after three young nieces and a nephew who are part of her extended family living together in a cramped apartment in public housing.

Wiping 6-month-old Navy Blue's runny nose, she says she knows the countdown to Farrington's graduation day has begun among her friends and wishes she were part of it.

"I feel very bad," she says, staring down at the concrete walkway that connects the string of dingy housing units. "I couldn't get the credits, so no point going. ... I went looking for jobs but they wouldn't hire me. Since I did drop out and I had nothing else to do, I had to watch the kids."

While students can drop out at age 15 if they have a full-time job, the crisis often begins building much sooner as students move from the nurturing hallways of middle school, where everyone knows your name, to ninth grade in what is often a crowded, impersonal and sprawling high school.

"That's the critical year," says Campbell High principal Gail Awakuni, who stepped into the top job at the 'Ewa Beach school five years ago when almost half the ninth-grade class was being held back or required to repeat the year.

"If they don't make ninth grade," says Awakuni, "a lot of times they don't make it the rest of the way. If they're not promoted after ninth grade, many don't go on.

"And there's a lot of reasons. Some of it is the skills they lack. For others, it's home problems, drug use, and coupled with that is their attendance."

The social cost is heavy. These young people may be doomed to low-paying jobs or menial labor, and may never have the earning power to support a family or the training to contribute what they might have to society. They're also more likely to be the ones involved with drugs, unwedded pregnancy, gangs and criminal activity.

A survey of 716 male inmates of the 1,003 men incarcerated at Halawa Medium Security Correctional Facility in 2005 showed that 35.8 percent did not have high school diplomas, according to a spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Safety.

NEW EFFORTS

Schools have recognized the problem but only recently have they begun to focus on ninth grade as a pivotal year. In a handful of Hawai'i high schools, fledgling programs concentrating on smaller learning communities and more supportive teaching teams are finding some success. And high school principals statewide are committed to redesigning their schools over the next five years.

Meanwhile, thousands of kids are still slipping through the safety net and putting their futures at risk.

The National Center for Education Statistics points out that dropout rates vary widely according to income levels, with the highest numbers showing up among families that struggle the most socioeconomically. For instance, national dropout rates annually for low-income students fluctuate between 9.45 percent and 13.3 percent, while those for students from middle-class families range between 3.8 percent and 5.7 percent. Students from high-income families, meanwhile, drop out at a rate of between 1 percent and 2.7 percent.

Nonetheless, Jim Parsley, a national consultant assisting DOE schools in building smaller learning communities, says it's not difficult for any student to fall prey to the dangers of the ninth-grade year.

"A lot of ninth-graders are so focused on their peer group," he says. "They want to belong and be a part of the crowd and they're afraid to stick out as an individual. And a lot of them feign ignorance because they get put down by their peers. If they come up with the right answer, they get teased. Some of these things are the culture of the ninth-grader."

Ray Rivera is one of those whose friends became more important than school.

The 18-year-old junior hasn't been in school for the past four months and is trying to figure out whether he should go back next year so he can graduate with his class, or move to Seattle to live with an uncle and start again.

He's also considering just getting a job washing cars or chopping vegetables at a restaurant to earn money to help support his girlfriend, who has moved into his extended family household of 11 on a narrow Kalihi lane.

Like many of those who drop out by junior or senior year, Rivera has been gradually losing interest in school since ninth grade, when he failed all but one class.

"I was going through a bad time," he says of freshman year. "Cutting class. Smoking weed under the bridge with my friends. I guess it's just the friends I hang around with. I just follow them."

This year he was inspired by an alternative cooking program, but eventually his school attendance lagged again as he divided time between his girlfriend and a 25-hour-a-week job at a Honolulu restaurant that kept him at work till 11 p.m.

When he couldn't drag himself out of bed the next morning to make school on time, the cooking class cut him.

"So I stopped going to school," he says, perched on a green plastic chair in the carport of his mother's Kalihi home with the family pit bull barking furiously in the background. Without a car and spending money, he's limited to catching the bus or staying home and cleaning house.

His parents worry about his future.

"I don't want him to do what I do now," says his mother, Levilyn Rivera. "I'm a housekeeper. And his dad is a waiter.

"All I want is for him to get his degree."

While parents and teachers are focused on students' grades and test performance the ninth-graders are filled with a whole different kind of anxiety. It's not about classes or college but about being cool.

"We were all into boys," remembers ninth-grade dropout Lenelle Dungo. She spent time in the detention home on Alder Street during her freshman year, got pregnant and now, at 19, is the mother of a 4-year-old.

After she lost custody of her baby, though she has visiting rights, Dungo began to realize she had to set a different example for her child.

"I was doing drugs and all of that. We wanted to experience everything. I was ditching school and hanging out with the wrong kids. We thought it was fun and games, but it's not fun anymore. We had to learn the hard way. ... I tried to get a job and that was hard. I had no references. No experience. And a lot ask if you have a diploma."

WHEN IT ALL CATCHES UP

Ninth grade is when classrooms can be seen not as launching pads but death sentences. It's a time when reason falls victim to rebellion, and performance in math and English meet at the crossroads with puberty, peer pressure and partying.

If a student has struggled academically for years, but been promoted anyway, this may be the year when it all catches up.

"What you're getting in ninth grade is the long-term effects of a lack of literacy," says renowned California sociologist Emmy Werner. She has written extensively about the protective factors that shield teenagers through these difficult years, as well as what they succumb to. Much of her groundbreaking research was done among children born on Kaua'i.

"What you see is that kids who begin to fall behind in the fifth grade, even though they're promoted, tend to fall further and further behind," says Werner. "Then they will tend to associate with other kids like themselves who may be beginning to become delinquent."

Most delinquency patterns become established by ages 13 and 14, the seventh- and eighth-grade years, says Werner.

"So the ninth grade isn't so much in itself the dangerous year," she says. "It's by then the accumulation of failures along the way, starting with lagging further and further behind in reading, and then associating with other losers. It's an end point in a deteriorating attitude toward school. So it becomes the straw that breaks the camel's back, the point where a number of kids quit because they see no purpose."

It's ninth grade when the largest number of students are held back because they've failed courses. Once that happens, research shows, a student is at far greater risk of giving up. Without intervention of some kind, they may continue to founder.

Seventeen-year-old Marcelus Perofeta and his cousin, James McKinnon, also 17, fit that pattern. Perofeta has been going to school intermittently since ninth grade, the year he earned "just half a credit" and spent most of his time skipping out to be with friends. Only now are he and his cousin trying to finish high school in a competency-based diploma program that's an alternative to a general education certificate.

On class days, Perofeta rides the bus in from Wai'anae on free passes provided by the Samoan Service Providers Association, which is offering the classes at Kuhio Park Terrace public housing area.

"I wanted to hang out with my friends," Perofeta says of his former high school days. "But now it's hard. My friends never help me out."

McKinnon was much the same, preferring to head to the bathroom at school as a ruse to just take off with his buddies. As well, he felt uncomfortable sitting in the same classroom with rivals from another neighborhood. Soon he wasn't going to school at all.

Perofeta's mother, Maggie Perofeta, says she tried everything to keep her son in school.

"I go over there, I take him to school, I watch them go to class," she says. "I would tell the teacher, 'Please call me if he's not in class,' and I would go back to school and look for him.

"He'd be on campus but he wouldn't go to class.

"Ninth grade, when we moved from 'Aiea to Wai'anae, that's when he started to slide."

NATIONWIDE TREND

Not just in Hawai'i, but across the country, it's ninth grade when dropout rates begin to climb, leading to a massive drain of students out of the educational pipeline altogether. And dropout rates worsen in the 10th, 11th and 12th grades, says Department of Education evaluation specialist Keith Kameoka.

At Wai'anae High, the dropout rate among ninth-graders alone was 9.1 percent last year, higher than in all other schools in the state, according to DOE statistics. Not far behind were McKinley at 5.9 percent, Waipahu and Farrington, both at 5.8 percent, and Pahoa High and Intermediate on the Big Island at 5.4 percent.

There are a few positive trends, however. Farrington's ninth-grade dropout rate had declined from 12.2 percent in 2001. So had Waipahu's, down from 8.1 percent in 2001. Several other schools have also seen decreases, including Nanakuli High and Intermediate.

But at the same time, the numbers of ninth-graders failing their freshman year continues to climb, especially at the largest schools.

At Konawaena High on the Big Island, the ninth-grade failure rate more than doubled in four years, going from 9.8 percent in 2001 to 20.1 percent last year. At 'Aiea High on O'ahu, ninth-grade failure was 17.1 percent in 2001, rising to 20 percent last year. At Kaimuki High, ninth-grade failure jumped from 22 percent in 2001 to 30.8 percent last year.

"Ninth grade, I flunked like three times," says 19-year-old Chris Maru, who tells the story of how his family life "wasn't working out" when he was a freshman and how he was moving constantly, changing schools, living with a sister here, a cousin there.

After his third try in ninth grade, and an unsuccessful summer school, Maru gave up.

"I didn't feel like going to school," he says, "and my attendance was bad."

While his life didn't offer much stability or sense of purpose in pursuing high school at the time, his sister finally helped him decide to try again at an alternative program.

"She was pushing me to go to school," he says. "Now I see I need education to move on. It's your last chance."

FAILURE RATE IS 'HUGE'

Like other high school principals, Kalaheo High's James Schlosser sees the dangers in that first year of high school and has been focusing much of his attention on interventions there.

"We know the ninth grade is the most difficult transition year in K-12," he says. "And the failure rate among ninth-graders is huge.

"At the end of our first semester, 14 percent of our ninth-graders failed one or more classes, but nationally that number is over 25 percent.

"You just don't want kids failing in ninth grade. What it means is they're more likely not to finish high school."

Chaotic homes, drug use, early pregnancy all seem to be common denominators for the young people most at risk of dropping out.

"You can't expect them to sit at a desk and write a decent paper when the scenario last night was they saw their dad beat up their mom," says teacher Paul Onishi, who conducts an alternative cooking class for students who were on the verge of dropping out of Farrington. "They're supposed to sit and focus in class when they have this baggage running through their mind? It's a ridiculous expectation for anybody."

But there are ways to restore hope, Onishi says.

"So much of the message from the kids is 'I'm mad, I don't care and I want to tear down because my life sucks.' All they get most of the time is 'You're a loser, you're no good, you're going to end up like your dad or uncle in Halawa.'

" 'If you just get away from that and say, 'You can do this,' they end up saying, 'Hey, that was cool.' "

Reach Beverly Creamer at bcreamer@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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