Escaping from Dropout Nation

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A year ago, Shawn Sturgill's educational prognosis was grim. He was one of the main subjects of TIME's April 2006 cover story on America's epidemic of high school dropouts, which examined the lives of those who had left school or were on the cusp of leaving in Shelbyville, Ind. When I first met Shawn, 18, most of his friends had already dropped out, and he himself was so far behind on credits that he had to shuttle between regular classes and a credit recovery program that felt a bit like detention. Not only was he was unable to graduate with his class, but he was also likely looking at a full fifth year in order to graduate at all.

I liked Shawn, a big, kind-hearted kid. But I wasn't sure that he was going to make it to graduation. There were just too many pressures and too few role models. He needed to work long hours after school to make money. His family was supportive, but his father and two of his siblings had dropped out before him and were making decent money burying fiber-optic cable. It would have been all too easy for him to join them.

Where so many others would have given up and given in, however, Shawn found just enough cussedness to will himself to the finish. He graduated in December — months before he thought he'd be able to — after playing an aggressive game of academic catch-up.

"I was kind of doubting that I'd do it sometimes," he says. "But I just kept working hard. My main goal was to finish in 2006, and near the end, all the principals were excited. They couldn't believe how quickly I got it done."

Shelbyville was the recipient of an odd sort of national attention last spring as both TIME and the Oprah Winfrey Show used the town and its high dropout rate as a vehicle for discussing the larger national crisis — around 30% of all students around the country drop out. Shelbyville was picked not because it had higher rates than everywhere else, but because it was one of the few districts that was actually talking about the problem and trying to do something it.

That talk, says Superintendent David Adams, has led to action. "The attention has allowed us to try things that we wouldn't have tried before," he says. Indeed, Shawn's turnaround is due in part to aggressive new strategies that Shelbyville schools are using to keep kids like Shawn on the right path. They've brought their credit recovery program into the digital era, adopting NovaNET, an online software program that Shawn was able to run through at his own pace and on his own schedule. The high school also opened a separate Student Achievement Center, located at a local college, for kids who have fallen behind and would be older than their classmates. Shawn wasn't one of the 30 students enrolled at the center, but reaching out to older kids who for a variety of social and academic reasons don't thrive in high schools is a crucial first step in lowering the dropout rate.

The district is also looking at possibly starting the high school day at least an hour later, because research shows that teenagers just aren't ready to learn at 7:30 a.m. Grades K-3 are getting a curriculum review to ensure that kids don't fall behind at the beginning of their school career. Next August, the district will introduce a program that allows kids who have been suspended or expelled to continue working toward their diploma.

"We don't really necessarily have all the answers," says Shelbyville High principal Tom Zobel. "But we are working on getting them."

As for Shawn, graduating has had immediate benefits. He went to the high school to request an early copy of his diploma so he could show it off at Christmas. And his parents threw him a graduation party at Shelbyville Community Church, where he landed not only about $350 in gifts, but also a promise from his dad to pick up half the car payments on Shawn's '99 Grand Prix GT. Even better was the fact that Shawn got hired to lay cable with his father and older brother, at a pay rate — $15 an hour — that was much higher than what his brother, who had dropped out of high school, had started at. With his diploma, he's also eligible for further technical training that can eventually place him in a very comfortable middle-class tax bracket.

His perseverance is inspiring those closest to him, as well. On Monday, his older sister started classes to get her GED. Shawn thinks his brother will likely follow suit. "Yeah," says Shawn. "This feels pretty good."