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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 most notable is the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo district (PSJA), where 90 percent of the population is Hispanic and about a third is low income.

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When Daniel King became superintendent there in 2007, he faced a dropout rate of about 18 percent. Nearly half the dropouts that year were seniors – 237 of them. "I felt I needed to immediately do something ... [because] the more time that went by, the harder it would be to find them and reengage them," he says.

In a matter of weeks, he had teamed up with South Texas College to launch the College, Career, & Technology Academy (CCTA) for 18-to-26-year-olds – in leased space in a former Wal-Mart.

He put up banners around town with the message: "You didn't finish high school. Start college today." That, combined with a door-to-door search for students who had dropped out, resulted in 223 of those seniors coming back to school.

By May 2008, about 130 had earned their diplomas. To date, more than 1,000 students have graduated from CCTA, more than half of them with college credits.

Along with core academic courses, former dropouts start with a college-success course that solidifies their study skills. Then they move on to career and technical-education courses such as welding or medical terminology.

The state allows both the school district and the community college to receive per-pupil funding, so the education at CCTA is free to students. Texas is also unique in funding high school students up to age 26. (Most states stop at around 21.)

"Before I came to this school, I had zero drive in me," says CCTA student Edgar Rodriguez. He was out of school for a semester and a summer while being "reckless" and "irresponsible," he says.

At CCTA, teachers tutored him for exams that had previously stumped him. The college-success class, taught by his former English teacher, inspired him to want to pursue teaching.

During a recent visit to an elementary school, Mr. Rodriguez shared a story and Web page he had created. "I had never been on that other side of the table where I was the one giving the presentation. I loved the atmosphere," he says. "I knew then, that's what I want to do."

As a fallback, he's taken medical-billing classes. His older brother was the first in the family to graduate from high school, he says. "Now I hope to lay down the next standard of going to college," says Rodriguez, who graduated last month. 

Dropout recovery has also inspired more-effective prevention. Most PSJA students now have access to college-level courses while still in high school, which keeps them motivated. And students falling behind in the regular schools can move into "transition communities" where they get more individualized attention until they catch up.

The district's dropout rate is dramatically down – from 18 percent in 2006 to just 3.1 percent in 2011. (The state average was 6.8 percent in 2011.)

Superintendent King was able to expand the early-college approach because "he made the case [that] if these [former dropouts] can go to college, why can't we do this for all students?" says Lili Allen, who is helping a network of districts replicate PSJA's approach.

"It was a smart and counterintuitive strategy," adds Ms. Allen, director of Back on Track Designs at Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit based in Boston.


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