Amid the verdant lawn and leafy trees of the tidy Jefferson Senior High School campus, a police officer patrols the grounds and a sign warns that guns are illegal.
Students in this inner-city school say gang members frequently disrupt class, and teachers spend much of their time dealing with troublemakers.
The biggest problem here, however, may be what you don’t see—all the dropouts.
With a 58 percent dropout rate, Jefferson has the worst dropout record in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest.
While half the students typically quit inner-city schools nationwide, Jefferson is at the lower end of the spectrum of so-called “dropout factories” because of a concentration of factors that are rarely all present at schools in other cities.
Located in South Los Angeles, where new immigrants mostly from Mexico and Central America settle, the area has a large minority population and high poverty.
Of its 1,977 students last school year, 45 percent qualified as English learners. More than 90 percent qualified for free or reduced-price lunches.
The newcomer population means families shift quickly, following jobs or fleeing immigration raids. The school has a 57 percent transience rate, compared to a 38 percent average across district high schools.
A shift in demographics has spurred racial divisions that peaked three years ago when blacks and Latinos clashed in several bloody melees.
A quarter-century ago, Latino students totaled 31 percent of the student body; now they account for almost 90 percent. Blacks comprise about 10 percent and a sliver are Asian or white.