It will be a few years before organizers have the success rates for junior high students who participated in the 2-year-old Project 10% program, but the county’s top education administrator says the effort to increase Merced County’s high school graduation numbers is well on its way.
“I think the measure is going to be closer to a qualitative study,” said Steve Gomes, superintendent of schools. “We’ll begin to talk to kids three or four years later and begin asking, ‘Did (Project 10%) make a difference on you?’”
Merced County Project 10% focuses on eighth-grade students and aims to increase the percentage of students who complete high school countywide. In its first year, more than 3,500 eighth-graders heard the stories of UC Merced students who finished school despite difficult personal lives.
The first-of-its-kind project is the brainchild of Gomes, District Attorney Larry Morse II and UC Merced students Noel Gomez and Patricia Paredes. The idea is to improve the quality of life for the students and others in the area.
According to a 2009 study from Northeastern University, one in 10 male high school dropouts is in jail or juvenile hall on any given day. That’s compared with 1 in 33 who finished high school.
Female high school dropouts are more likely to become single mothers than their counterparts, the study found.
Over their working lifetime, the average high school dropout will cost taxpayers more than $292,000 in lower tax revenues, social aid and incarceration relative to an average high school graduate.
On Friday, a handful of UC Merced students spoke to eighth-graders at Hoover Middle School. Karen Abalos, who is studying sociology with a minor in Spanish, shared her story with classes.
The 18-year-old freshman from Orange County said she was sexually assaulted for more than a year during her junior high years. Abalos said she spiraled into depression and her typically stellar grades plummeted.
Then came an encounter with a friend who noticed something wrong with Abalos’ behavior.
“She told me there’s two roads,” Abalos said. “She told me you can either take the bad road – not get an education, flunk out, have your family shun you – (or) you can show everybody that you can overcome this.”
Other university students share their stories of escaping gangs, drugs or difficult home lives to finish school. It’s that one-time encounter that organizers want to re-create over and over with eighth-graders in Merced County.
Gomes said he believes it’s possible the interaction with university students can make a lasting impression on a number of children.
After each presentation, the eighth-grade students fill out a response card. Gomes said the responses on the cards are evidence of the project’s efficacy.
Many of the students who hear the stories then sign a pledge to finish high school.
The sprawling Merced Union High School District had 93 percent of its students graduate on time in 2012, according to Department of Education numbers. About 90 percent of students graduated countywide. The state average was 78 percent.
Gomes said the way rates are calculated can be tricky, but that he’s “comfortable” saying 85 percent is closer to a realistic graduation rate countywide. Regardless of the number, he said, educators need to keep working to improve it.
“We can’t sit back and go, ‘Oh, look, the numbers are 96 percent, we’re fine,’” Gomes said. “I think that we need to be realistic.”
Morse said the efforts of the university students go a long way. Rather than be told by an “old guy in a suit” they should finish school, he said, the students hear from someone who looks like them and came from similar families.
“It’s a great message from very relevant messengers,” Morse said.
Morse said he has approached leaders at the University of California, Santa Cruz and UC Davis about starting similar programs in Yolo and Santa Cruz counties.
Organizers said they plan to scan and post the response cards from eighth-graders to the project’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/MercedCountyProject10.