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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.

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The US Department of Education launched the High School Graduation Initiative in 2010 to support school districts doing dropout prevention and recovery work. Competitive grants were given out to 27 districts and two states, for a total of just under $50 million.

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A personalized approach

At least 15 cities have organized stand-alone reengagement centers. They offer a one-stop, personalized case-management approach – bringing together schools, private businesses, workforce-development experts, and other partners to try to reconnect young adults with a promising future.

Since 2008, New York City's centers have reenrolled about 17,000 students, and the centers in Newark, N.J., have brought back 3,900, according to the National League of Cities.

Staff members at Boston's REC listen to each student's story, share struggles from their own school days, help them find the right school or alternative program to fit their needs, and stay in touch once they've reenrolled.

That's what won the trust of Quinones. In November she started coming every weekday to take online credit recovery courses at the REC, a bare-bones set of offices and computer labs with inspirational posters.

In just a month – keeping normal school hours, though that's not required – Quinones finished four courses and is on track to earn her diploma in February. Although she feels "stuck" in geometry, a teacher is on hand to guide her.

"In high school, teachers never really sat with me.... Having teachers take out their time ... to go through one problem for four hours, that means a lot," she says.

The REC "has expertly directed students toward options that are best suited to their needs, rather than falling into the habit of putting them back in the school where they were previously unsuccessful," says Chad d'Entremont, executive director of the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy in Cambridge, Mass.

Since 2010, the REC has re-enrolled more than 1,300 students. About 7 out of 10 persist for at least a year. The tracking system for the total number of graduates is still being developed, but at least 160 earned their diploma within about a year, Ms. Hamilton says, and she predicts many more will do so over a longer time frame.

Dropouts are a diverse and difficult group to get across the finish line. About 1 in 5 says he or she lacks parental support, and another fifth are parents themselves, according to the 2012 High School Dropouts in America survey by Harris Interactive. Other reasons for dropping out include mental illness, the need to work, too many school absences, and uninteresting classes. Some dropouts have spent time in prison or on the streets.

Settings that offer flexible schedules and sustained personal attention are often required to help them master the skills they need.

"I'm always very honest with them: 'It's going to be tough, but it doesn't mean it's going to be impossible. And I'm going to help you envision yourself with a cap and gown a year from today, or two years from today,' " says Carolina Garcia, a dropout recovery specialist at Boston's REC.

An 'early college' approach

In Texas, an "early college" approach to dropout recovery is gaining national attention.

At least 10 districts are motivating dropouts to come back not just to finish high school, but also to take community-college courses free of charge – sometimes enough to earn an associate's degree or a training certificate.


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