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`DROPOUT’ A DIRTY WORD TO PRINCIPAL

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Joe Sandoval grabs a computer printout and dashes to his car. "Come on," he says excitedly, "we have a hot lead."

Gunning the engine of his polished, lime-green 1977 Chevelle, he speeds through the back streets of Denver, pressing his search.He is not looking for a criminal or a missing person, at least in the conventional sense of the word. Sandoval is the principal of Denver's North High School; a student, Isabel Godoy, is in danger of dropping out.

And Sandoval won't give up with-out a fight.

It started when Denver Public Schools notified Sandoval that his school had the worst dropout rate of the city's 10 public high schools - 561 dropouts in a student body of about 1,800.

North High is an inner-city school, with all the problems of such schools. For the past five years, Sandoval has been its principal; he has always taken an activist approach, what he calls "management by sampling the soup."

Several years ago, he set up a Welcome Center to provide after-school education for students having problems. But it wasn't enough.

He drew up a game plan to cut the dropout rate by two-thirds, to 200 this year. Among other things, it includes intensive counseling of the 200 students considered most likely to quit school.

The centerpiece is a certificate of failure - an "anti-diploma."

Students who decide to drop out must appear in Sandoval's office with a parent or guardian. When it came Ray Gonzales' turn, he stared in disbelief at the paper that Sandoval was asking him and his mother to sign.

"The undersigned guardian and student accept full responsibility for the listed student being a high school dropout.

"By signing this disclaimer, I realize that I will not have the necessary skills to survive in the 21st century," the form says.

There is a two-column list of those skills - reading, writing, arithmetic, problem-solving, responsibility, leadership. And there is a warning that a dropout like Gonzales could expect to earn an average $585 a month without a diploma, half of what he would have earned with one.

Accompanying the form is a "Certificate of Dropping Out."

There was a space for Ray's name.

"I knew I had a choice - go back home or get a GED (high school diploma)," he said. "There was no way I was going to sign that form."

Carolina Valenzuela feels the same way. She missed three weeks of school when she went to Mexico; 20 years ago, Carolina would have been out of luck. Miss three weeks, and she'd fail a grade.

But the school has a new program, dividing the year into quarters. Miss a quarter, and the student can still accumulate credits during the other quarters to graduate. Carolina will get another chance.

Sandoval asks if Carolina knows about the anti-diploma and if it had any effect on her decision to return to classes.

"Yes, I know about it. No one wants that," she says.

So far, four students have been offered the anti-diploma. All have declined, deciding instead to sign another form promising to stay in school.

"It was something the kids could see. To a lot of them, that's the only way they'll ever learn. It was something in writing, and to some of them, it was a shock," Sandoval said.