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Dropping out to go to work

More teens quit school to help financially needy families

Updated Thursday, May 15, 2008 | 7:14 p.m.

Click to enlarge photo

Angel Lee works on an English class book report Wednesday at Desert Rose Adult High School. Lee returned to school after dropping out.

Click to enlarge photo

The number of Clark County teens dropping out of high school so they can work has jumped dramatically, and officials suspect the economic downturn is to blame.

The Clark County School District talked to 502 teens who dropped out of high school after the 2006-07 academic year and 120 of them — 24 percent — said they had given up their educations to take jobs. In contrast, when the district tracked down 1,171 dropouts after the 2005-06 academic year, only five of them — not even 1 percent — said they had quit school in order to work. The many others gave other reasons for dropping out, including being unable to pass the proficiency test, falling too far behind in class credits, or simply disliking school.

Additionally, the percentage of dropouts from low-income households more than tripled, to 8.2 percent last year from 2.5 percent in 2005-06.

“Some families are really on the edge,” said Sandra Ransel, principal of Desert Rose Adult High School in North Las Vegas. “They depend on the group to keep them afloat. If they have a younger teen who can work, they sometimes make that choice.”

Studies indicate that the chances of a student’s dropping out of school increase when he works more than 15 hours per week.

“It’s very difficult to get up for a 7 a.m. class if you were working until 10 p.m. the night before,” Ransel said. “Once kids are spending almost as much time at work as they are in school, it competes. Something usually has to give.”

Nationally, dropout rates are typically tied to a community’s economic picture, said John Ball, executive director of the Southern Nevada Workforce Investment Board. The group oversees millions in federal dollars from the U.S. Labor Department, including $1.2 million that will be used to target students at risk of quitting school, as well as individuals who have already dropped out.

“The good news is we have more resources,” Ball said Wednesday. “The bad news is that our economy is trending downward more rapidly than other labor markets in the country.”

Ball said he was glad to learn that the district was taking a closer look at its dropout statistics, which are often the most difficult to quantify and qualify.

“You can see that somebody is trying to identify the issues and figure out strategies to go after them,” Ball said. “They are into problem-solving, which is exactly what we want.”

But is there really anything a school district can do to retain students whose families are desperate for more household income?

School officials figure they can at least try to convince the students and their families that if they can hold on long enough for the teen to graduate from one of the district’s vocational programs, the teen should be able to get a better job and make more money.

Karlene McCormick-Lee, the district’s deputy superintendent who coordinated the dropout study, said it’s painfully clear that some students need help balancing the demands of school with employment. New career and technical academies will be one way to expand existing internship programs so that more students can sign up and potentially avoid having to hunt for work on their own, McCormick-Lee said.

“If there are ways to provide opportunities for children to continue their education and earn some dollars, we should support that,” McCormick-Lee said. “Especially if it means they’re doing something they’re interested in and are learning from the experience.”

The district has two dedicated career and technical academies, as well as programs and specialized classes at dozens of additional high schools. The Southeast Career and Technical Academy, formerly known as Vo-Tech, has one of the district’s lowest dropout rates and highest passing rates on the statewide proficiency exam. The Northwest Career and Technical Academy opened in the fall, and already has a waiting list for the upcoming academic year.

Four more academies are scheduled to open in the next three years — in the east, Summerlin, the central Las Vegas Valley and the southwest.

The increase in dropouts from low-income households is evidence of the challenges many students are facing even before they set foot in the classroom, she said.

“That’s why it’s going to take all of us, a full community effort, to address these issues,” McCormick-Lee said. “When all of us come together, our students succeed.”

The dropout report, which she presented to the Clark County School Board on Monday, noted that the overall dropout rate was 6 percent, up slightly from the previous year’s 5.6 percent.

The latest survey did yield some good news, including that 111 former dropouts are enrolled in the district’s adult education program.

Nineteen-year-old Angel Lee is one of them. She was in the 10th grade when her mother became disabled and unable to work, so Lee dropped out of school, finding a job as a classroom assistant at an early childhood development center.

Three years later, she is back in classes at Desert Rose Adult High School.

She’s working part time at night now, but in a few weeks she is to start a new job as a shoe store clerk.

“I think I need to change my schedule a little bit so it’s easier on me,” said Lee, who wants a career in criminal justice.

Desert Rose’s principal estimated a third of her students work, and some hold down multiple part-time jobs.

Another Desert Rose student, Cindy Pena, was 16 when she dropped out of Rancho High School four years ago, after her mother went through a divorce.

“My mom was having a lot of trouble and I was the only other one in the family working,” Pena said. “To get more hours at my job you had to be flexible about the schedule. Work had to come before school.”

Pena had an easier time finding work than her mother did. “When you’re young, you can start off and they let you work your way up,” she explained. “When you’re older and have no experience, it’s harder to find a good-paying job.”

Her mother wasn’t too happy about her decision to drop out. “But I’m stubborn and independent,” Pena said. “She couldn’t stop me.”

Within two years of getting hired at a movie theater, Pena was promoted to supervisor and then assistant manager. She moved on to a casino, where she now works as an assistant manager in food and beverage services.

Pena attends class from 11

a.m. to 2 p.m. before heading off to work, and she is on schedule to graduate within a few months.

(Editor's Note: This story has been modified. In an original version, the word "doubled" was used to describe the amount of dropouts this past year compared with the 2005-06 year. It has been replaced with the word, "tripled.")

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