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How to get high school dropouts into 'recovery'? Ideas bloom across US.

Innovative programs across the US are finding some success in reengaging high school dropouts. They strive to target 'disconnected' youths – those not in school and not working, who are a costly burden for taxpayers.

By Staff writer / January 15, 2013

Kassandra Diaz, age 19 (l.), and Medina Phillips, 21, who dropped out of high school, study at the Boston Re-Engagement Center to earn high school diplomas.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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Boston

Cydmarie Quinones dropped out of Boston's English High School in May 2011 – senior year. "It was the usual boyfriend story," she says. "You put so much attention into your relationship ... that it kind of messes up the whole school thing."

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Edgar Rodriguez graduated from the College, Career, & Technology Academy (CCTA) in Pharr, Texas. The program was designed to motivate dropouts to not only finish high school, but also to take community-college courses.

Six classes shy of the credits she needed, she thought that she could skip getting a diploma and still find a college that would train her to be a medical assistant.

"I've been doing nothin' for a whole year," Ms. Quinones says. Actually, she's been running into walls – spending hundreds of dollars on in-person and online programs that made false promises to get her a high school credential. Meanwhile, her friends graduated and went on to college, including her boyfriend. This fall, she says he told her, " 'I can't have a girlfriend that didn't do nothin' in life.' " So she decided, "OK ... I have to do it for myself and for everybody else.... I have to get my diploma."

Nationally, about 600,000 students drop out of high school in a given year. And more than 5.8 million 16-to-24-year-olds are "disconnected" – not in school and not working. In 2011, governmental support (such as food stamps) and lost tax revenues associated with disconnected youths cost taxpayers more than $93.7 billion, according to Measure of America, an initiative of the Social Science Research Council, a nonprofit based in New York. 

"Education has become so key to getting into the labor market [that] we call dropping out 'committing economic suicide' at this point," says Kathy Hamilton, youth transitions director for the Boston Private Industry Council, which partners with the school district to run the Boston Re-Engagement Center (REC), a hub for helping dropouts like Quinones complete their education.

Dropout prevention has been in the spotlight in recent years. But increasingly, school districts are also realizing that they can do more to bring young adults back into the fold.

It's called "dropout recovery," with districts deploying a host of strategies – from door-to-door searches for dropouts to alternative schools where people earn free college credits while taking their final high school courses. The efforts are taking place in dozens of cities ranging from Camden, N.J., to Alamo, Texas.

America has "long had a forgiving education system, where people can come back at any time to complete a diploma or finish a degree, but we haven't been structured to reach out and reengage youth who have dropped out," says Elizabeth Grant, chief of staff in the US Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. "As educators across the country saw more-accurate graduation and dropout numbers and recognized the size of the challenge, our school systems started to get more responsive."

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