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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Even the dropouts who do land factory jobs can find work tougher than they thought. A relative helped Christine Harden, 18, find work in a local car-parts factory four months after she dropped out of Shelbyville High. But she has to get up at 4:30 a.m. to make the first shift every day, and she says her back is killing her. "All my friends who are thinking about dropping out, I tell them, 'Don't do it,'" she says. "This is real life out here. It's not easy."

THE LONE HOLDOUT

I met Shawn Sturgill's parents in the living room of their ranch-style home around the corner from Shelbyville's cemetery. At age 15, Shawn's father Steve, with a child on the way, dropped out of high school and then spent more than a decade battling drug abuse. He was born again six years ago, he says, patting the thick wooden cross around his neck. He has been clean since and has a high-paying job burying fiber-optic cables. But his turnaround came too late to be a model for his three older children, two of whom dropped out of school.

Shelbyville schools are performing triage on Shawn's education. For much of the day, he is in credit lab, working at his own pace to recover classes he has failed. Every afternoon he goes to the Blue River school, where he is enrolled in auto-body-repair courses.

Shawn has a tough road ahead of him. Though he will attend his class's graduation ceremony to watch his peers get diplomas, he won't be on stage, at least not yet. Even the school's efforts to speed up his credit recovery haven't been enough, so he will have to return for a fifth year at Shelbyville High. It's no fun for a 19-year-old to be in high school. Shawn is already a big guy who doesn't like to draw attention to himself.

But Shawn's hopes are bolstered by his plan. Auto-body work is not just a passing fancy for him--even when he's not at the vocational school, he is working on his Camaro, which most recently needed a new bumper. His favorite TV show, of course, is Pimp My Ride. He wants to save for tuition at Lincoln Technical Institute in Indianapolis so he can continue to develop his auto-sculpting skills. He rattles off the industry rates--car painters make an hourly wage of $22, collision techs $17--and he wants to get there. So he laughs it off every time somebody asks him in the hallway, "Hey, you're still in school? I would have thought you'd drop out by now."

Shawn's friends who have dropped out are, for the most part, struggling. A couple of them got their GED and are working in factories, but others are shuffling through menial jobs--one works at the car wash, another is washing dishes. A few, says Shawn, aren't doing much of anything except playing video games at their parents' houses. But Shawn says he is serious about not becoming a part of their dropout nation. "I've already went and put 12 years into this thing," he says. "There's no use throwing it all away."

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