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La Joya ISD program aims to prevent dropouts

Social worker Jessica Ortega-Ochoa and teacher Beatriz Lopez couldn’t believe what they were hearing as the mother of a 16-year-old pregnant student told them she didn’t know where her daughter could be found. The young girl wasn’t living at the Palmview home, and her mom thought she was living somewhere in Peñitas.

It was around 11 a.m. on a Monday morning and the mom also thought her daughter was enrolled in school. The teen wasn’t.

20150921 LJISD Dropout prevention 4982Working with La Joya ISD’s Pregnancy Education and Parenting Program, Ortega-Ochoa and Lopez were two of dozens of district employees who went out Friday, Sept. 18, and Monday, Sept. 21, to hunt down 1,803 students who hadn’t registered for school. By the end of the day Monday, that number was down to 333.

The numbers include students who dropped out during the previous school year as well as those who finished the school year but didn’t show up for the first day of school this year.

“This is a districtwide effort. Everyone is working on bringing these students in and increasing the graduation rate,” said Bertha Perez, dropout prevention coordinator. “Every decision they make will impact them in the future. We have to be persistent in getting these kids back in school.”

Lopez, Ortega-Ochoa and PEP teacher Mary Flores put 63 miles in Monday, and that was after putting in 74 miles the Friday before visiting homes in La Joya, Peñitas, Palmview, Alton and the spaces in between. Flores’ car was turned into a mobile command center as the women took phone calls, passed around files and completed paperwork with pens that read, “The tassel is worth the hassle.”

The 16-year-old’s mom didn’t have an address for the girl, but she was able to give Ortega-Ochoa and Lopez a phone number, which they called from the car. The girl had just given birth two weeks prior, and that meant she qualified for homebound instruction. After giving birth, young moms can get six weeks of tutoring at home.

Ortega-Ochoa told the girl her mom can get in trouble if the teen didn’t return to school.

“You need to get your boyfriend or in-law to take you to La Joya High School and enroll today,” Ortega-Ochoa said.

The girl agreed to go in and enroll.

Throughout the day, Ortega-Ochoa, Lopez and Flores stressed the flexibility available for the young moms. They could attend East or West Academy, which have computer-based programs and allow students to come in the morning or afternoon to catch up on the credits they need. There’s a local grant that will pay for daycare for students, but they have to attend school full time.

There’s also the College and Career Center for nontraditional students who want to get their high school diploma. That’s what one young mom with a 4-month-old girl and a toddler ended up doing after the PEP team visited her at 9:30 a.m. The girl’s husband didn’t want her going to school all day, and she was pending six of 25 credits needed to graduate. He was surprised to hear that she could just go in a couple of hours a day to finish up her degree.

“They just need a push. They need a little motivation,” Lopez said after leaving the girl’s home.

“There’s so many options for them now that they need to pick one of the opportunities,” Flores added.

Not all the girls were home, but the girls the team did find were given little choice in enrolling.

Jaqueline Cuahuizo, 19, has a baby girl less than a year old. Cuahuizo just needs a passing score on the state math test to get her diploma, and she previously had told the PEP team she didn’t have anyone to watch her little girl while she was getting instruction. But Monday her mom came out of the house and told the team she wanted the girl to go get her degree and she could watch her grandchild.

Ortega-Ochoa called La Joya ISD to schedule a pick up for Cuahuizo. An officer would escort her to the College and Career Center. The state test will be administered in October and if she passes, she’ll get her diploma.

“A lot of students just need to believe they will achieve it,” Ortega-Ochoa said. “And you see how important support at home is – If you allow them to give excuses, well, they’ll have excuses the rest of their lives.”

And Ortega-Ochoa left little room for that, calling officers each time the team found a girl at home with no way to get to the school to enroll.

At the end of the day Monday, the PEP team had visited 12 homes and had five girls enrolled. One student had moved to Mexico, two were not home and one had moved to Mission. The Friday before, the team had visited 18 students and seen nine of them enroll.

The young 16-year-old mom living with her boyfriend in Peñitas was not one of the registered students. As the PEP team returned to the school, she called to say if she had her mom’s permission, she didn’t have to go to school. Flores emphasized the fine for a minor not attending school is several hundred dollars, but the connection was broken. Lopez wondered aloud if the call was dropped or the girl hung up on her.

Their only recourse is to inform the state the girl is not in school, which will mean a fine for her mom.

“I will start the paperwork on that because the 16-year-old needs to be in school,” Ortega-Ochoa said, and she was true to her word, handing the girl’s file to a graduation specialist when she returned to central office and telling her to start the process.

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