Finishing what they started; DISD program turning ever more dropouts into high school graduates

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 17A

It was his son who made Jesus Barraza want to go back to school.

“I knew I wanted a better life for him,” said Mr. Barraza, 19, who dropped out of North Dallas High School soon after his son, also named Jesus, was born. “I knew I had to go back to school to get that for him.”

So after a year and a half out of school, he went back, through one of the Dallas schools’ reconnection centers. And now he’s ready to don his cap and gown.

“I stood strong because I knew I needed to get this done,” he said.

On Thursday, he and about 100 other reconnection center students will graduate in a ceremony at Kimball High School. That’s almost five times as many students as graduated at the same ceremony last year. Dallas school officials say the increase shows the progress they’re making in drawing dropouts back into the system.

Last year at this time, the centers enrolled about 2,000 students. That number is up to 2,800.

“I think young people are finding it’s more difficult than they imagined to survive without a diploma,” said H.B. Bell, associate superintendent and director of the Dallas schools’ dropout prevention program. “We’ve redoubled our efforts to help youngsters come back to school.”

The reconnection centers are an attempt to reclaim some of the ground lost to the dropout problem, which by most estimates claims a third or more of Dallas high school students. Last year, Dallas schools enrolled 14,566 freshmen but only 5,949 seniors.

When a dropout comes back through a reconnection center, he gets an individualized program and is allowed to work at his own pace. The curriculum is split about evenly between computerized course work and textbook learning; when needed, a teacher is available to help students through rough patches. Reconnection center students take the same exams as regular students.

Students have the option of transferring back into their regular high school and normal classes, and many do. The others stay with the self-paced programs to complete their credits, but their diplomas will bear the name of their high school.

Those who stay at the reconnection centers are allowed to graduate with the rest of their high school class, but some finish their work months before their school’s graduation. Thursday’s midyear ceremony is for them.

Mr. Barraza, for example, finished his final class work in math and history in October, despite maintaining a difficult schedule: working from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. as night manager of a local supermarket, then attending school from 8 a.m. to noon.

He credits his wife, Maricela, for pushing him to stick with it. He also credits the reconnection center, whose flexible system allowed him to handle both work and school.

“I don’t think I could have done it if I had to just go to regular school,” he said. “I had to work for my family.”

Last year, 529 former dropouts who had been funneled through reconnection centers graduated from Dallas schools, 22 of them at the midyear ceremony. While school officials don’t know what this year’s final numbers will be, the increased size of Thursday’s graduating class makes them optimistic.

“We’re touching a lot of kids’ lives, and we’re making progress,” said Norma Villegas, a dropout prevention specialist with the district.

School officials aren’t the only ones with newfound hope.

“Now I consider myself a person who can do things,” Mr. Barraza said. “If I just put my mind to something, I can do it. I wasn’t so sure about that before.”