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Houston downsizes to tackle dropout rate

HOUSTON -- Officials at the largest Texas school district, which once miscounted nearly 3,000 dropouts, are taking a personal interest in at-risk students and dividing them into smaller classes. The hope is that the students will stay in school.

With the school year underway, educators from the Houston Independent School District are knocking on the doors of students who did not return to class and encouraging them to reenroll. The district's 24 comprehensive high schools also have been divided into "learning communities" to enhance relationships among students and teachers. It's an effort to bring the 211,000-student school district -- a model for President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act -- in line with state dropout rates and to help the students who need help.

"Most kids who drop out drop out because nobody knows them," said Steve Amstutz, principal of Lee High School. "Nobody knew they were gone. Nobody's given them the pat on the back, the kick in the pants, the encouragement, or the support."

About 75 percent of the 16,638 students who started ninth grade in Houston in 1998 graduated four years later, according to the most recent available records. That is lower than the state average of nearly 83 percent. The district aims for an 85 percent graduation rate by 2007.

Houston's dropout problem has been in the national eye for two years after an investigation that found that the district miscounted nearly 3,000 dropouts in the 2000-01 school year, and that employees at a high school falsified records to show zero dropouts.

Regulators, who suspended Houston's "academically acceptable" accountability rating last year, restored it in July after the district revamped its record keeping.

Some critics say the district, a springboard for former superintendent and current US Education Secretary Rod Paige, is not doing enough to retain students.

Mary Ramos, deputy state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said there is more to the dropout problem than losing contact with students. She said school counselors discourage many Hispanic students from applying to college.

"The counselors were saying: 'Well, you know you're not college material. I suggest you look into mechanics or hairdressing or something like that,' " Ramos said.

In a speech in Houston last December, Paige said he welcomed scrutiny of his former district but that some of the contentions of misleading test results or problems with statistics were politically motivated or outright wrong.

"If they can muster substantial dirt on the Houston school system, then they hope to damage the national implementation of No Child Left Behind," he said.

Interim Superintendent Abe Saavedra said he is trying to build relationships within the community: "Our community can be very forgiving when we make mistakes. We admit we've made a mistake, and we correct the situation."

On Aug. 28, Saavedra led nearly 500 business and community leaders, parents, and district employees on the door-to-door campaign to urge dropouts to reenroll.

Claudia Betancourt, 21, said she was excited when the visitors told her she could reenroll. The mother of two young children, she said she dropped out of Furr High School in May because a registrar told her she should try to get a high school equivalency degree through the General Educational Development exam.

"I've been looking for jobs, but nobody has called me because I don't have a high school diploma or GED," Betancourt said.

She is now a senior at Furr, and the district has helped her children get day care. She expects to graduate in May and is dreaming of a career in nursing.

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