Four men in a van roll into a rough neighborhood along 28th Street, looking for a teenager.
The file lists a name, Juaquin Ramirez, his age, 16, his history and an address. Juaquin doesn’t know they’re coming. If he did, he’d be gone.
Their eyes scan barred windows and building numbers. The street, east of Eastern Avenue, is lined with a curtain of cinderblock wall, covered in layers of graffiti and patchy gray paint patterned like camouflage.
The men close in on their first target of the day. Across Clark County, 100 other teams are doing the same.
On 28th Street, the men ascend exterior stairs to a second-story apartment, rousing a sleeping pit bull. Juaquin’s mom answers the door.
The teen rises from the couch as the men disclose their mission.
"We want you to graduate," Clark County School District Deputy Superintendent Pedro Martinez tells him. "That’s the only reason we’re here."
Juaquin is one of 300 dropouts the district tried to lure back into the classroom Saturday through a series of home visits in its Reclaim Your Future campaign. The effort, which focused on juniors and seniors, is a first for the district and was executed by 150 district staff members assisted by 150 volunteers, many of them PTA members.
Juaquin, who should be a junior at Rancho High School, didn’t return to school this year, which started Aug. 29. His mother couldn’t persuade him to go.
"I grew up in these neighborhoods, too. I know it can be tough," says state Sen. Ruben Kihuen, D-Las Vegas, who was once robbed at gunpoint near the area he covered Saturday as an outreach volunteer.
Only one of two Nevada students graduates high school, earning the state the worst graduation rate in the country, Martinez notes. Clark County accounts for three-quarters of all Nevada students, meaning the state’s standing, in large part, falls on the district’s shoulders.
"We are the state," Martinez says.
WHY THEY LEAVE
Students leave school for many reasons, volunteers discovered Saturday.
"One girl had a baby the day after school started," says grandmother Kathie Ambrosio, who volunteered to help Saturday because children "don’t listen to parents. They listen to strangers."
Another student she met was alone in the house taking care of six to eight little kids.
Other teams met a male teenager who dropped out to support his girlfriend, who just had a baby. One student had tried to enroll, but tired of waiting in line and just left.
The district began the school year with 1,500 students who were unaccounted for. That decreased to 500 dropouts after pinpointing students who moved out of the district or transferred to new schools. About 400 students agreed to return to the classroom because of Saturday visits or phone calls, leaving 100 who have not been reached or who have not responded to calls.
Making contact is the easy part. So is saying, "Yes, I’ll be there Monday," to someone in your living room. That’s what Juaquin said after a few minutes of staring at the floor. But he’s so far behind on his credits he doesn’t think he can graduate.
The men on the team offered him their cellphone numbers and rides to school if he needed them.
The hard part comes next — following through on promises, Martinez says.
"We have one chance here," he says. "If we lose them again, they won’t come back."
The district must quickly and clearly demonstrate how students can catch up, how it will be different, said Heath Morrison, superintendent of Northern Nevada’s Washoe County School District.
Washoe County is in its third year of knocking on dropouts’ doors. Morrison says the program, Door to Door for Student Achievement, is making a difference.
The Washoe County graduation rate hovered around 50 percent from 2006 to 2009. It then increased to 63 percent, improving at every high school, during the campaign. A higher percentage of seniors also graduated in 2011, Morrison adds, but the numbers won’t be released until later this week.
Also, the number of Washoe County dropouts was cut in half — 400 to 200 students — from the first year to the second year of the program, meaning students aren’t only coming back to school, they’re staying, he says.
Each returning Washoe County student works with the district to form a "personalized plan of progress," which can include computer recovery courses, online classes or homebound instruction, where a teacher visits students who can’t attend regular class, he said. Clark County also uses these programs.
In May, Washoe County also opened five re-engagement centers , which offer access to programs in one place. More than 300 students have visited the centers and turned their academic direction around.
TRACKING DOWN DROPOUTS
Washoe County School District workers also knocked on doors Saturday, visiting students from kindergarten to 12th grade who show the warning signs of dropping out, which include poor attendance and credit deficiencies.
But the door-to-door program has also uncovered some surprises in Washoe County.
"Kids vanish," Morrison says.
Washoe can’t even locate some students to knock on their doors, says intervention specialist Eric Beye.
"Some of these families move five to seven times a year, phone numbers disconnected," he says. "Worst-case scenario: Where are they going to live next week? Shelters to week-to-week motels."
Volunteers become "detectives," asking mailmen, landlords and neighbors to track down leads.
It’s a persistent Nevada problem exacerbated by the recession, Beye says. Numerous dropouts work to support their parents and siblings.
The same problem exists in Clark County, Martinez says. Some families, who were contacted last week to confirm their address, vanished. Ambrosio knocked on a door Saturday to discover the family had moved out three days ago.
But the district won’t give up, Martinez says. He plans to call Rancho on Monday to see whether Juaquin showed up. If not, Martinez plans to do another home visit and offer the teen a ride to school.
Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at email@example.com or 702-383-0279.