Officials at Texas's largest school district, which once miscounted nearly 3,000 dropouts, hope that by taking a personal interest in at-risk students and dividing them into smaller classes, the students will stay in school.
With the school year underway, Houston Independent School District educators are knocking on the doors of students who did not return to class to encourage them to re-enroll. The district's 24 comprehensive high schools have also been divided into "learning communities" to enhance relationships among students and teachers.
It is an effort to bring the 211,000-student school district -- a model for President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act -- in line with state dropout rates and to help the students who most need it.
"Most kids who drop out drop out because nobody knows them," said Steve Amstutz, principal of Lee High School. "Nobody knew they were gone. Nobody's given them the pat on the back, the kick in the pants, the encouragement or the support."
About 75 percent of the 16,638 students who started ninth grade in Houston in 1998 graduated four years later, according to the most recent available records. That is lower than the state average of nearly 83 percent. The district aims for an 85 percent graduation rate by 2007.
Houston's dropout problem has been in the national eye for two years after an investigation found that the district miscounted nearly 3,000 dropouts in the 2000-2001 school year, and that employees at one high school falsified records to show zero dropouts.
Regulators, who suspended Houston's "academically acceptable" accountability rating last year, restored it in July after the district reorganized its record-keeping.
District spokesman Terry Abbott said the scrutiny invigorated the effort to keep students in school and awoke the community to its role in solving the dropout problem.
"We have kids for, what, seven hours a day? Many of the problems they run into come when they leave our schools," Abbott said.
Still, some critics say the district -- a springboard for former superintendent and current U.S. Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige -- is not doing enough to retain students.
Mary Ramos, deputy state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said there is more to the dropout problem than losing contact with students. She said school counselors discourage many Hispanic students from applying to college.
"The counselors were saying, 'Well, you know you're not college material. I suggest you look into mechanics or hairdressing or something like that,' " Ramos said.
In a speech in Houston last December, Paige said that he welcomed scrutiny of his former district but that some of the claims of misleading test results or problems with statistics were politically motivated or outright wrong.
"If they can muster substantial dirt on the Houston school system, then they hope to damage the national implementation of No Child Left Behind," he said.
Interim Superintendent Abe Saavedra said he is trying to build relationships within the community.
"I think our community can be very forgiving when we make mistakes," Saavedra said. "We admit we've made a mistake, and we correct the situation."
On Aug. 28, Saavedra led nearly 500 business and community leaders, parents and district employees on the door-to-door campaign to urge dropouts to re-enroll.
Claudia Betancourt, 21, said she was excited when the visitors told her she could re-enroll. The mother of two young children, she said she dropped out of Furr High School in May because a registrar told her she should try to get a high school equivalency degree through the General Educational Development exam.
"I've been looking for jobs, but nobody has called me because I don't have a high school diploma or GED," Betancourt said.
She is now a senior at Furr, and the district has helped her children get day care. She expects to graduate in May and is dreaming of a career in nursing.
Like Betancourt, many of the returning students are placed in "learning communities" -- students who take classes together. For example, Lee's 2,100 students have been divided into communities of about 220, each with a theme, such as visual arts or law and justice.
Teachers monitor their progress, help students choose courses and keep in touch with parents.
About 325 students dropped out at Lee during the 2000-01 school year, the year before the learning community program began there. By last year, that number was down to 140, Amstutz said.
"We're not satisfied, but it's worth the effort already," Amstutz said.
Joseph A. DiMartino, director of secondary school redesign at the Education Alliance at Brown University, said such strategies have been highly successful in other districts, including those in Boston and Kansas City, Kan.
"There's an acknowledgment that things have to be different because if we keep doing what we've always been doing, we're going to keep getting what we've always got," said DiMartino