It’s a new semester at Theodore Roosevelt High School. Lisa Alva scans the classroom full of 30 new ninth graders. She can’t help but wonder how many of them will still be here to graduate in four years. She will probably lose a few girls to teen pregnancy, a couple may be killed in gang violence, many will miss too many classes due to family priorities and even more will give up because they either don’t see the point in learning to read or they find it to difficult. At Roosevelt “about 45 percent of incoming ninth graders will actually graduate four years later with a diploma,” said Alva.
Los Angeles Unified School District has the second worst graduation rate in the country at 40.6 percent according to a report by Education Week in 2007. The national average graduation rate was 68.8 percent in 2007. In LA County, the area of Boyle Heights, home to Theodore Roosevelt High School where Alva works as a ninth grade English teacher, ranks seventh for the highest percentage of adults who never completed high school out of 265 schools in Los Angeles
“We don’t see a sacrifice for the sake of education. Not very often,” Alva said. She has spent the last 12 years of her career as a teacher in East L.A. trying to figure out why.
Chris Berru, a twelfth grade U.S. Government teacher at Theodore Roosevelt said that he thinks the drop out mentality “starts in ninth grade because they get straight F’s and they say ‘I’ll never recover.’”
Alva is not at all surprised by their lack of effort, however. “Their background in school so far has been to be promoted without making that extra effort- because I’m a year older I move to the next grade – it’s only at the high school level you begin to have to earn credits,” she said.
By then, for many of her students, it’s too late and they have already developed a lackadaisical attitude toward education. “My lowest reader is a second grade level my highest reader I think is a 4.4 grade equivalent,” Alva said. She only teaches ninth grade classes. And although she tries to increase their reading level with flash cards and mandatory reading every night, few of her students ever attempt to improve.
In her second period English class she has 10 students, the highest grade in the class after midterms was a “D”. And when students filled out grade reports they weren’t concerned at all. All the students smiled and laughed as if their grades didn’t matter.
“When something’s interesting or vital to you, you’ll learn it… For some reason our students don’t really feel that they need to know how to use a semi colon,” Alva said.
Sam Diaz works as a counselor at Roosevelt and speaks directly with students about their education on a daily basis. He believes that motivation needs to come from home.
“I personally think that it does have to do with the culture at home to some degree. When parents don’t instill that importance of schooling in a way that students understand that it is vital to do well in school, I think we lack that urgency at that level in terms of parenting,” said Diaz.
Alva has noticed parents no longer take an active role in their children’s education the way they did when she was a child. “Parents don’t read to their children at home. They don’t go over their letter sounds with them and take them places and point things out, or even have conversations at the dinner table about what they learned today,” said Alva.
It may go even further than just their understanding of the importance of school. The language barrier that schools such as Roosevelt, which is 99 percent Latino, must tackle is anything but helpful. And many families are new immigrants to America who don’t speak English at all.
“I think if you go to another country…keep your customs, keep your traditions, but I always tell them you have to learn English. You’re just not going to make it. You have to know it,” Berru said.
Alva has found that even relating Spanish words to English words won’t always work. She has experienced that parents are often not very well educated and speak only 500 to 3,000 Spanish words so students have too little vocabulary to relate to English.
“Increasingly the language problem that I’m noticing is that there’s just so few words, the child has so few words,” said Alva.
“If you take a couple of steps back you could say it’s not doing us any good to accommodate everybody’s language,” She adds.
This lack of English or even Spanish translation means students must make extra effort to achieve the same level of education as their English-speaking counterparts. “I’m forcing them to make progress, but it’s forcing them. Too many have to be forced,” Alva said.
Many parents either are unable to or don’t even see the need to show up at conferences anymore.
“That’s another tragedy, very few parents show up. Maybe out of 100 students maybe 20 parents show up,” Berru said. And those that do show up often can’t communicate with teachers in English at all.
Students are often absent in order to act as translators for a family member who must visit a doctor. In their priority list, Alva has noticed family always comes before school.
Not all teachers put in the time and effort Alva finds necessary to see progress either. “Not everyone who is in a classroom in front of kids should be there,” she says.
Berru agrees, “There are some that should be out of the profession.” Alva even recalled one time when she captured a picture on her cell phone camera of a substitute teacher asleep in the library when he or she was supposed to be working.
The high drop out rate at Roosevelt, however, may have to do with more than just language. “If my home life is unstable there’s no way I’m going to be able to focus in school,” Alva said.
And Roosevelt students aren’t sheltered when it comes to social issues. The neighborhood has a well-known gang presence.
“This is like a haven for them… this is like a safety net. The gangs don’t shoot each other here. Out there it’s every man for himself,” Berru said.
“People get shot on your street on a regular basis,” Alva agreed. She lives 2 blocks away from Roosevelt.
Carlos Osunas, a graduate of Roosevelt who is currently attending University of California Berkley, remembers gang life as a part of high school.
“I have been in incidents where I know a lot of friends who decided to join a gang,” Osunas said. He, however, never joined a gang and focused on school instead. He credits that to his mother’s love and encouragement.
Alva has also noticed about five percent of the girls she teaches become pregnant.
“We do have a large number of students who are pregnant. It creates a great deal of difficulty for them,” Diaz said.
Roosevelt even offers child day care on campus due to the high number of teenage mothers at the school.
Diaz has also noticed a problem with kids drinking on campus. In the past three weeks he caught three ninth graders drinking excessively at school. And the budget crisis plaguing LAUSD only makes things worse.
“If we had the resources that we need to fix the many problems that we have I think we would be able to really make a dent in the issues that we have. Funding is constantly cut and there’s no money for anything basically,” Diaz said.
Programs to keep kids engaged after school and tutoring either must go unpaid or are cut due to a continually reduced education budget from the government.
Silvia Tovar, the Principal of Roosevelt, said the learning environment is unsatisfactory for students and teachers due to the lack of funding as well.
“My teachers have to contend with the challenges of not having air conditioning, not having heating, having partitioned walls instead of real walls, and given all of that they do an amazing job,” Tovar said.
The dumbing down of education in the classroom in order to help students who made it to high school without the knowledge of junior high content is harmful to everyone. Students who are accepted to college often lack the knowledge they are expected to have learned in high school.
“You wonder really how well qualified they are to be successful in that kind of an environment,” said Alva.
She is not the only one who fears for their future as a student.
“I think that a small number of our graduating seniors are prepared,” said Diaz.
Osunas has first hand experience entering college after four years at Roosevelt. He said that most students never talked about or even knew about college when he was in high school there. And the competitive expectations at UC Berkeley were shocking for him.
“I had no idea about the academics and the environment I was getting myself into,” Osunas said.
Osunas said he would remind teachers to keep encouraging and pushing students that seem like they are slipping through the cracks.
“I feel like those are the kids that really need help the most because teachers are just letting them slide by,” said Osunas.
He also said he would make students more aware that “what you’re doing now will affect your future and education is definitely the key to succeed in life.”
And if there is a student at Roosevelt who is willing to put forth the effort to achieve a better education “I’ll do anything to help them,” said Alva.