Dropout Nation

The number of high school students who leave before graduating is higher--much higher--than you think. Inside one town's struggle to reverse the tide

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H. Schmid / zefa / Corbis

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In Indiana, however, there is a bipartisan consensus about the state's latest antidropout measure. Shelbyville representative Messer, former head of the Indiana Republican Party, is no stranger to partisan politics, but his strongest partner in pushing for the measure was a liberal Democrat named Stan Jones, who is now the state's commissioner of higher education. The bill they championed had, fittingly, both carrot and stick. Students who drop out before age 18 could have their driver's license suspended or their work permit revoked unless their decision was first approved by a school or judge. But students who found the high school environment stifling could take classes at community colleges. The dual approach struck a chord, and both houses passed the bill unanimously.

Messer acknowledges that his law is no panacea. He's fond of saying he can't legislate away teenage mistakes. And indeed, Kentucky, Georgia and West Virginia have had similar laws on the books for a number of years, but critics say there's no proof that the laws have worked. Still, he says, "some kids are dropping out because it's easy and it's O.K. That is going to change."

On a national level, No Child Left Behind--the metric-heavy school reform that President Bush would like to expand in public high schools--was designed to make schools accountable for their dropout rates. But it hasn't been carried out very seriously. The Education Trust, an advocacy group for low-income and minority students, issued a scathing report in 2005 about how the Federal Government stood by while states handed in patently misleading graduation numbers: last year three states didn't submit any, and for many states, the figures were clearly inflated.

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings tells TIME that much is being done to get better data on dropouts. She points to the National Governors Association resolution last year to set, for the first time, a common definition of a dropout that all states will use to report graduation rates to the Federal Government. But it's a nonbinding compact. And critics say the government is trying to slash funding for important support programs, including the Carl Perkins Act, which has funded vocational education across the country since 1984. Spellings says President Bush has proposed converting Perkins and other support programs like GEAR UP and Upward Bound into block grants for states to choose their own fixes. As long as states get results, says Spellings, "we're not going to prescribe particular programs or strategies like vocational education."

Superintendent Adams believes he has come up with the right prescription for Shelbyville. The high school has established a credit lab, a sort of open study hall that lets at-risk kids recover credit from classes that they have failed. The principal at the elementary school is trying to identify at-risk kids in first grade. In the middle school, students are taking high school--graduation pledges, promising to be onstage with a diploma along with the rest of their class.

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