Cal State Northridge Project Cuts Dropout Rate at Sylmar High School
Harvard University dropped a bomb with its 2005 study revealing California's overall high school graduation rate as 71 percent--fully 16 percentage points lower than the 87 percent officially listed by the state, based on 2002 figures. The university's Civil Rights Project study reported rates for Latinos and African-Americans that were "alarmingly" lower--60 and 56.6 percent respectively.
Alarming is too gentle a word for the situation, said Warren Furumoto, director of Cal State Northridge's Center for Academic Preparedness. To Furumoto, monitoring the dropout rate is like watching the lifeblood drain from the state's future.
The last 12 years of his career at CSUN have been devoted to finding a way to help stop the hemorrhaging, and he believes he and his colleagues at the center have found at least one way to do that.
A center project called the Teacher-Tutor-Student Collaborative drove down Sylmar High School's dropout rate from a jaw-dropping 48 percent for the class of 2004 to 26 percent for the class of 2005. The project expects to see that rate dip to 14 percent for the 2006 crop of students.
"Last year was the largest graduating class Sylmar High School has ever had, and the school was established sometime in the 1950s," said Furumoto, whose program begins working with seventh graders at Olive Vista Middle School and stays with them through the high school years at Sylmar.
In 2004, Sylmar graduated 523 students, he noted. The class of 2005, representing the first cohort of collaborative students, numbered 737. Furumoto said the class of 2006--the second cohort to come through the project--should swell to 861 graduates.
Under the aegis of CSUN's College of Science and Mathematics, the effort at Sylmar High is part of the federal government's GEAR UP Partnership Project, whose main objective is to reduce the dropout rate and increase the college-going rate. Furumoto won a $1.8 million federal grant to launch the center's project in 1999.
The strength of the Teacher-Tutor-Student Collaborative lies in the tutors, all Cal State Northridge and Mission College students, who help their middle and high school students put into practice a concept of group learning based on research by University of Texas at Austin mathematics professor Uri Treisman, named the Harvard Foundation's 2006 Scientist of the Year for his work in science and math education.
Between 90 and 100 CSUN tutors and up to 25 from Mission--reflecting the demographics of the middle and high schools--are assigned to Olive Vista and Sylmar. On any given day, Furumoto said, about 50 tutors are working at the schools, spaced to ensure that each middle or high school student spends at least one class per day in group learning with collaborative tutors.
Typically, a teacher meets with her assigned group of tutors, explains what will be covered for that session and what she expects the tutors to accomplish with the students. After explaining the lesson plan to her students--whether it is discussing a novel or learning a new math stratagem--the class is broken into groups of six to nine students, one tutor for each group.
Within those groups, Furumoto has observed, magic happens. Through the CSUN and Mission tutors, he said, doors to learning are opened for the younger students. "Our tutors act as surrogate brothers and sisters," Furumoto said, taking subject matter and "breaking it down" for their young charges who, in turn, learn to help each other.
"The fact that our tutors are not far removed from high school themselves is making a big difference with their students, who find it easier to relate to and learn from them," he added.
The tutors' majors "run the gamut," said Furumoto. The diversity of academic experience has paid off for the Sylmar and Olive Vista students, who learn about a whole new world of disciplines offered at CSUN. Before the college students begin working at the schools, however, they receive two solid weeks of training on subject matter, classroom management, how to teach note-taking and time management.
Tutors also are required to take courses in educational theory for two semesters. "In that course," said Furumoto, "we cover many of the recent discoveries in brain research. Those findings tell us that the brain is social, emotional and physical, and we have to have a good balance of all those aspects if we want a student to be receptive to learning.
"Group learning," he said, "is the most important aspect of individual learning through a process of peers learning from each other."
Pleased with the collaborative's impact on the dropout crisis, Furumoto smiled at a Sylmar High administrator's recent jest. "Because of our GEAR UP program, he told me, students now are staying at school so long that at four o'clock we have to do a sweep to get them to go home."
Contact: Carmen Ramos Chandler, (818) 677-2130, firstname.lastname@example.org
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