Dropping out: The Lost Kids of Armenian America, Part 2
This is the second in a series of articles addressing the problems facing Armenian-Americans in Southern California. The first part was published on June 28, 2010.
* * *
They say that if you put a frog into a pot of boiling water, it’ll jump out immediately. On the other hand, if you put a frog into a pot of room-temperature water and then boil it very slowly, it won’t know to jump out. It will stay in there and die. I don’t know if that’s true. I’ve never boiled a frog, but I have seen scores of kids go through the slow, creeping process of dropping out of school, killing their own futures.
High school and middle school students in Los Angeles are dropping out of school by the droves. The Armenian students in the LA area are right in line with the trend among the greater population. Like slowly boiling water, dropping out of high school takes a while — kids don’t drop out all at once. If it was all at once, most of them wouldn’t take that step. For those that would, there would be a strong reaction from the parents, the schools etc. But the pain of dropping out, of failing, of giving up, creeps in slowly until, like boiling water, their future has evaporated. This is how it works.
The setting: a high school in Glendale, California. Grades 9-12. 3,500 students. 60% Armenian.
The child: Kohar. 14 years old. Born in the US. Parents are Parskahye, Hayastantsi, Beirutsi (it doesn’t matter which — trust me, no matter what your preconceived notions are, you’re basing them on your limited experience with kids. I’ve been doing this for ten years; it doesn’t matter. They all fall into this.)
Kohar is the friend of Serineh, one of the kids in my program. Unfortunately for Kohar, I don’t have any room for her in the AGBU Generation Next Mentorship Program just now. I’ve got two case managers who can support approximately 65 matches a piece (they’re nearly at their maximum), and I’ve got a waiting list of over a hundred kids. So Kohar is on her own.
For one reason or another, Kohar has fallen behind in her first year in high school. Maybe it was the difficulty of the transition from middle school to high school. Maybe something happened in her life. Maybe her father is too strict. Maybe she doesn’t get along with her mother. Maybe it’s just not right for a child to be in school with 3,500 other people. For any one of these or hundreds of other reasons, Kohar fails most of her classes in her first semester at high school. She needs 220 credits to graduate high school. She gets five credits for each class she passes, which makes a total of 60 credits a year. Maybe she earns 10 more in summer school.
Failing the first semester puts her about 30 credits behind. She wants to get back on track, and 30 down seems daunting; however, she is confident that she can do it. I don’t know her very well, but she comes by the office with Serineh and I do what I can to encourage her. She works hard at getting things together and is passing four of her six classes the second semester. Then she gets into a fight, maybe gets a ticket for it (more about that ticket later) and gets suspended five days from school. At this point, Kohar’s older friend, 10th grader Tamar (also, unfortunately not in our program), steps in with some sage advice: “What are you wasting your time at that school for? Get home schooling like me. I go to class three hours a week and I do whatever I want the rest of the time. In the first month I got 10 credits.”
The home schooling of which Tamar speaks is not the kind that you see on TV. Tamar’s parents aren’t at home teaching her science, history and math. Tamar is going to a business establishment, which calls itself a “school” where she gets 90 minutes of instruction twice a week. She takes home some workbooks which she has to fill out and return to her “teacher.” Each correct workbook gets her some credits. The first couple of months, she gets the easy workbooks such as health. Later on, she has to do the hard stuff, such as algebra and history.
Kohar sees that Tamar is living the easy life so she decides she wants to get home schooling too, except her parents won’t let her. They are convinced that she can turn it around at regular school (side note: they are right). So Kohar consults Tamar again who tells her, “Just wait. You’re not behind enough. You have to get so far behind that they don’t have a choice. Plus, you’re getting into trouble, right? They’re gonna start getting worried … then they’ll let you go.” You may ask yourself why a little bit of trouble would worry Kohar’s parents so much that they would let her leave school. The reason is that getting into trouble doesn’t mean detention anymore. It means tickets and probation, but we’ll discuss that in greater detail in the next installment. So Kohar follows this advice and effectively forces her parents’ hand. They are largely ignorant of the alternative opportunities that the school district provides and rely mainly on bad information and rumors to make their decision. Kohar fails another semester, falling 60 credits behind, and then she transfers to home schooling.
At home schooling Kohar gets her first ten credits and is happy at that. Also, she now has tons and tons of free time. Whereas she used to be in school for about 30 hours a week, she now only goes for 3 hours a week.
One small problem is that there is nothing productive for a teenager to do during the daytime on weekdays other than go to school. So she starts getting into more — not less — trouble. Her circle of friends now mostly encompasses other kids who are also out of regular schooling, because the regular kids can’t hang out during the day. A few of her old friends, however, start ditching class at her old school in order to hang out with her. They do this so much that they eventually transfer to home schooling too. As Tamar pulled Kohar behind her, Kohar is pulling others.
Four to six months into home school, Kohar hits a wall. The packets are getting harder and harder. She is having trouble completing them. In the last two months she’s only gotten two credits. At home schooling, you still need to do the hard work but without the advent of a teacher. She doesn’t really know what to do so she turns, once again, to Tamar.
Tamar has a new plan: “Forget home schooling. That’s a waste of time too. I got a diploma. It’s only $400 bucks.” There are a lot of businesses that will administer sham tests to these kids (answers provided) and for somewhere in the neighborhood of $400 they’ll print you a diploma. (If you’re interested in one of these diplomas, skip the $400 and go directly to your local office supply store. For $20 bucks you can buy the same certificate paper they use and print yourself one at home.) These diplomas are utterly useless. You can’t get into any university with them or get any serious job. Regardless, it’s a quick fix, so Kohar follows in Tamar’s footsteps.
It took a while for all of this to happen and Kohar is nearly 18 years old now, so she and Tamar get themselves registered as students at the local community college. A fact which — when I see them again for the first time in a couple of years at the motel that fateful Friday night — they use to point out to me, “See, it is a real diploma. I got into college with it.” I respond, “Merrnem boyit, anyone can register at community college once they’re seventeen and a half years old. You don’t even need to have graduated elementary school. That’s what community colleges are for. They’re not just there for kids to transfer to universities, but also to help raise the general educational level of the community. But you can’t use that diploma to get into university.”
My point is a mute one, because these kids, in all likelihood, are not headed to university. In fact, they end up dropping out of college soon enough. You see, during all this mess, they never actually got an education. They have no foundation upon which to pursue any higher learning. Their basic academic skill sets and knowledge base are somewhere below the 9th-grade level. (The studious among you may go check out local dropout rates. Don’t bother; they’re not recorded. Remember I said that Kohar and Tamar “transferred” to home schooling. Therefore the school districts record them as transfers — not dropouts. That way, they get to keep their dropout rates lower than they actually are.)
In my ten years of work with kids in Glendale, I’ve kept hundreds of kids from going down this path, but that’s not much of an accomplishment because I’ve also lost scores of kids to it as well. I’ve seen at least 150 kids go through this exact process. Out of all those kids, I only ever saw one get a real diploma. So you see, this water boils very slowly. It usually takes about two years for this whole process and so the frog doesn’t jump out; instead it stays in the water and slowly its future dies.
At Generation Next what we do is try to educate our parents as well as our students about this process, but we’re fighting an uphill battle. It’s easy to educate the parents. You tell them; they believe you. It’s relatively easy to educate the students. You tell them, and they believe you; however — as any parent will attest to — kids often allow their desires to trump their needs. If they want to get out of school, they’ll let that supersede the knowledge that they need an education.
The problem is that the parents, the kids and we as youth workers are all fighting a few currents. The first one is that these businesses are even allowed to operate. They should be outlawed. At the very least, they should fall under extreme scrutiny and regulation. Secondly, the public schools are behemoth institutions. Some of you reading this article went to universities or grew up in towns with populations smaller than most high schools in Los Angeles. As well meaning as school staff and district administrators are, it is impossible for them to give each child the attention they deserve/require. And so the parents have a legitimate concern about allowing their kid to continue to attend public schools. Thirdly, whereas a somewhat defiant kid could have gotten through school just fine a few years ago and gone on to college (like I did), that same kid today will surely have a criminal record (the topic of discussion in the next installment) before leaving school. Some parents, once educated, are able to stand strong and keep their kid in school. Many are not.