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when many don’t finish the senior year. “They have some real illusions over there,” she said in a later interview, referring to the TEA. Reyes said she believes the Hispanic dropout rate “approaches 60 percent, but you will never see that reported.” Some critics blame the educational reform law passed in 1984 popularly known as House Bill 72 for intensifying the dropout crisis. “In Texas, we’re seeing a ten percent increase in dropouts directly related to House Bill 72,” said Aurelio Montemayor, a director of an IDRA dropout project who spoke at the San Antonio NALEO confer ence. Montemayor called the reform bill “a simplistic solution to a complex problem.” He said it fell into a general pattern of educational tinkering that tends to look at what is wrong with the student rather than what’s wrong with the schools. It’s as if the schools were a pair of ill-fitting shoes and educators decided “the foot doesn’t fit the shoe let’s change the foot,” he said. Part of the school reform act was intended to crack down on absenteeism; students are now not allowed to miss more than five days per semester. Montemayor said the law emphasized tougher standards without adding resources to make sure “at-risk” students could compete. “We have right now a battle between equity and excellence,” he said. But it was House Bill 72 that mandated the IDRA dropout survey the first comprehensive statewide study of the problem. The reform act also took initial steps toward equalizing the state’s financing to districts around the state though that matter is now in court because advocates of poorer school districts contend the equalization has not gone far enough or fast enough. And IDRA ‘s estimates of the number of dropouts have gradually gained acceptance Respite from the Jungle WHILE MOST education experts approach the dropout crisis by asking how young people can be kept in school, Richard Halpin asks a question that goes closer to the heart of the matter: how can young people be educated? Halpin is director of what he likes to refer to as a “high-tech one-room schoolhouse” in downtown Austin, officially known as the Creative Rapid Learning Center. The center helps nearly 300 high school dropouts a year work toward their GED high school equivalency certificate. It also sends many of its students back into the world with a markedly different attitude toward learning than the “school is a drag” mindset that is typical in the public schools. “People think, ‘Dropouts, oh, they must be dummies,’ ” Halpin says. “But let me tell you: some of these kids come through here and burn through in a couple of months.” The learning center uses the Comprehensive Competencies Program a highly developed system that relies heavily on computers to teach literacy and basic skills as well as more advanced course work. The average student stays at the center for about five months and can complete the equivalent of one grade level in 100 hours. Students but about 60 percent of the center’s funding comes from city and county funds. Money from churches, private corporations and the federal government round out the $800,000 annual budget. Halpin gives a guided tour of his learning center with obvious relish for the technology he has assembled. He tosses off terms like “interactive laser disc with video-computer technology.” Looking upon a new system that is not in use, he explains that it is shut down because “we crashed the disc the other day.” He displays a complete set of IBM course ware with basic programs such as “Comma Cat” all the way to one called “Mendelian Genetics.” “This stuff is good,” says Halpin. At a long table in the center’s classroom a dozen computers with blue and turquoise screens are available for the student to work on at his or her own pace, with tutors available to help. At certain points in the day a teacher will coordinate group efforts. On a recent day .this summer, the room suddenly filled up with the sound of the heavy metal rock group Guns and Roses singing “Welcome to the Jungle.” Patty Kennedy, a counselor, instructed students to express their feelings in a journal entry. “Just write your very own opinion,” she said. The center has a staff of 20, including teachers, counselors and administrators. Graduates of the center are sometimes hired to work part-time. Robert Anzaldua, 19, worked as an office assistant at the center this summer after he completed his GED. He had dropped out of Travis High School in Austin during his junior year. “I was your basic typical teenager,” Anzaldua says. “I was hanging around with the wrong people.” After about a year of that, he says, he decided to apply himself at school. But the teachers had already seen his “bad side,” he says. “It seemed like they didn’t want to have anything to do with me.” Anzaldua heard about the rapid learning center on a late-night public service announcement and decided to enroll. There, he says, he found a “totally different approach.” He says he learned more studying three hours a day for four days a week at the center than he did in public school. “Here you have tutors people who care,” says Janie Contreras, 22, who dropped out of school at age 15 at about the time she got pregnant. Contreras said a year after she dropped out she enrolled in a GED class but “the work was too hard.” She succeeded four years later at the rapid learning center. “You’re more independent here,” she says. Even though you’re 16, they’ll treat you as an adult.” Halpin says a key to the center’s success is to “program” the student for success instead of failure by starting at a level that is easily mastered. He says failure in the public schools too often leads to quitting school altogether. “How can you fail a human being?” he asks. “It’s 4 stupid thing to say; but that’s what we do.” Halpin doesn’t profess to have much confidence in the public schools. He describes the school system as a “failed monopoly” that is based on an out-of-date concept: that education can occur in rigid standardized blocks of time. By contrast, the learning center’s method is based on reaching a level of competency, with less emphasis on the time it takes. Halpin contends the time-based system in the public schools “doesn’t meet the needs of the learner it meets the needs of the structure.” Yet he is happy to expand his programs into the schools where they are welcome. In a northeast Austin high school, the learning center has set up a computer-assisted English as a Second Language program, a basic-level literacy program, and a dropout prevention program that has won praise from teachers and administrators. “What if we put this in ten percent of our schools?” he asks, looking around his high-tech classroom. “What if we put it in the prisons?” After more than a decade of working with dropouts, Halpin says he is weary of “people wringing their hands” over the problem. He advocates sweeping structural changes in public schools. “The issue is not really dropouts,” says Halpin. “The issue is that the American educational system is not what it should be.” D.D. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 9