Every school day, about 7,000 students drop out of school in the United States. That's a total of 1.2 million students each year and only about 70 percent of entering high school freshman graduate each year. The problem is especially serious in America’s inner city school districts. In Philadelphia, for example, nearly half of the student population drops out of high school.
But a program in Philadelphia is working to re-engage students to come back to school, earn a diploma and even go on to college - schools that cater to students who have dropped back in.
Many of the returning students have big dreams. One wants a career in law enforcement. Another plans to be an accountant or an attorney. They’re on track to achieve those dreams now that they’re back in school.
"When people think of drop out they think, ‘Oh, you don’t want to go to school, that’s why you dropped out.’" Educator Tierra Fernandez says that’s not the reason most kids leave school. "You have students that are in foster care or they have unstable households, they’ve children, they moved around a whole lot and they just don’t have a stable house to live in."
As a special projects assistant with Philadelphia’s Re-Engagement Center, Fernandez is working to change that. To address its drop-out problem, school district officials created the nation’s first program designed specifically to attract high school drop-outs and turn them back into students.
"Our mission is to connect as many students with the opportunity to graduate as possible," says Fernandez. "The Re-Engagement Center as a whole [accepts] any students that are over-aged and under credited, or who have dropped out of school."
The program began as a telephone hotline, but now works with 11 schools around the city. Some offer only on-line classes, others allow students to attend half days so they can continue to work or care for children. But most drop-in students return to school full time.
Brandon Suarez, a drop-out who dropped back in, gave his class' graduation address in February 2011.
Returning students like Brandon Suarez say it took a while to realize the importance of finishing school. He was just months away from graduating when he dropped out two years ago, and says the Re-Engagement Center has given him a second chance.
"When you sit at home on your butt all day, you realize education, your diploma, is the starting point of life," says Suarez.
To help non-traditional students like Suarez succeed in an academic setting, Re-Engagement Center schools may impose special rules.
For instance, at the three schools run by Excel Academy, there is a strict dress code. Students wear either black, gray or white shirts. Each color gives students a status that restricts them from certain activities or grants them special privileges. Their behavior and grades determine which color they wear. But according to senior Push Morris, the rules and discipline, along with encouragement from faculty, help the Re-Engagement Center live up to its name.
"It’s early in the morning, they’re excited. They’re like, 'Woo! Good job coming into school.' But at other schools, you don’t see that, like actually standing outside welcoming you into the schools and stuff. So I feel it’s a great motivation to have in the morning."
More than 4,300 students have felt that motivation since the program started in May 2008. It currently serves 2,200 students, and just opened a new school in North East Philadelphia to attract more Latinos, the ethnic group with the highest percentage of drop outs.
According to Matthew Kass, director of Excel Academy Central, the secret behind these schools is the trust that’s part of the student-teacher relationship.
Students in class at Excel Academy North, part of Philadelphia's program for high school drop-outs.
"I know everything about them, and you know what, kids like that because a lot of the times in these comprehensive schools, these kids get lost in the shuffle," says Kass. "There is no accountability. We believe in accountability."
For instance, if students are late to school, they may not go into their classroom and interrupt the instruction for everyone else. They must spend that period outside, picking up trash around the school.
Kass says with that philosophy and more programs like the Re-Engagement Centers, the nation can meet President Obama’s goal of leading the world’s college graduation rate by 2020.
"I’m not graduating students to the streets, and it is my commitment and my mission to make sure that they go to the next level," he says.
Brandon Suarez is ready for the next level. The 20-year-old has been going to Excel Academy South since it opened its doors in September, and graduated in February. He plans to pursue a career as a firefighter. Seventy-seven of his 78 classmates graduated with him. And 85 percent of them have been accepted to post-secondary programs, moving them closer to achieving their dreams.