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Push to win back dropouts

The dropout rate in the US officially hovers around 10 percent.

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Teachers don't discipline – if a student is acting up, they'll motion to the door while continuing to teach, and the student will leave, knowing they'll be heard by the principal or a group of peers later – yet the school had no suspensions or serious incidents last year. For the past three years, the school has graduated more than 500 students a year, who meet all the traditional state standards.

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"We do everything we can to be user-friendly," says William Tracy, the school's principal, noting that the school's seven sites include some in apartment buildings. "Now we don't have to recruit, we just keep opening sites."

Another program was spearheaded by a county – not typically a player in education policy. Deborah Feldman, the county administrator for Montgomery County in Ohio, says she realized several years ago that half of their budget was going toward criminal justice and human services, but they were doing nothing to keep people from entering those systems.

"There was no place for a second chance," she says. "We needed to institutionalize the issue." Ms. Feldman helped create and fund a county "Fast Forward Center" that reaches out to dropouts and refers them to a variety of second-chance programs, depending on their needs. It's helped 1,000 dropouts graduate, and she says that in the five years since they started, the 16 school districts in the county lowered their dropout rate from a combined 25 percent average to about 12 percent.

In Rantoul, Ill., meanwhile, Chris, Aziz, and Stacy, have entered Lincoln ChalleNGe Academy, one of 30 programs around the country run by the National Guard.

For five and a half months, students, or cadets as they're called at Lincoln, live in a structured, quasi-military environment in which they work toward their GED and develop personal goals and a plan that includes college, a career, or the military. Once they leave, trained mentors will continue to meet with them regularly and report back to the school.

"A lot of our cadets are first generational completers of anything," says Hattie LeNoir-Price, the recruitment, placement, and mentors coordinator. "Their parents can't answer their questions."

Cadets wake up at 5:15 a.m., do PT (physical training), and address adults as "sir" or "ma'am." But it's voluntary, and administrators emphasize that it's not a boot camp or funnel to the military. Besides the structure, they say, what's crucial is believing in the students.

"A lot of kids have been told they're stupid, and that's an illegal word here," says Col. Richard Norris, the lead instructor. In an environment that recognizes kids' different learning styles, he says he can see kids jump up three or four grade levels in just five months. "The biggest thing is being able to show these kids open doors, and keep them open.... When they realize you're not going to give up on them, that's when they start to come around. It's a trust issue."

Nationally, there are 30 Youth ChalleNGe programs, which are funded through a combination of federal and state dollars, and five more are starting this year. Of the 67,000 kids they've graduated, 96 percent have either gone to college, the military, or started career-track jobs, says Greg Sharp, president of the National Guard Youth Foundation. About three-quarters get either a GED or a high school diploma.

"We have all these programs after a kid gets in trouble, but very few prevention programs," he says. "We can't solve the whole problem, but we can make a huge dent."