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

  • H. Schmid / zefa / Corbis

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    But the social cauldron of high school weighed on her. She didn't get along with the cheerleaders on the yearbook staff. And her avid interest in Stephen King novels and TV shows about forensics earned her a false reputation, she says, as a glum goth girl. So she started ditching class, barreling through the Indiana countryside alone in her Dodge Neon, blasting her favorite song, The Ghost of You, by My Chemical Romance--a song, as she puts it, about missed opportunities and regret.

    "I'd rather regret something I did," she says, eyes welling with tears, "than regret something I didn't do." For her, sitting in a classroom biting her tongue and waiting to graduate when college wasn't necessarily in her future was a form of inaction. Working, saving money, starting her adult life--that was taking the initiative.

    In cases like Susan's, American public education may be a victim of its own ambition. Rallying around the notion that every child should be prepared for higher education, schools follow a general-education model that marches students through an increasingly uniform curriculum, with admission to college as the goal. But what happens when a 17-year-old decides, rightly or wrongly, that her road in life doesn't pass through college? Then the college-prep exercise becomes a charade. At Shelbyville High School, as elsewhere, the general-education model became an all-or-nothing game that left far too many students with nothing.

    Two months ago, Susan told her mother Kathy Roan that she was dropping out. "I wanted to kill her," says Kathy. But Kathy had her own bitterness about Shelbyville High. Two decades earlier, she too had been angered by the indifference of the school. She dropped out as soon as she turned 16.

    On Feb. 22, Susan's mother went to school with her to sign her out of high school. That night Susan applied for more hours at the Taco Bell where she worked and promptly stayed for the 5 p.m.--to--2 a.m. shift. The other women on the graveyard shift gave her hell for quitting school. They were mostly dropouts themselves, says Susan, who reminded her that even at fast-food chains, anyone who wants to advance needs a diploma or GED. She had, they told her, just broken something that could not be easily put back together.

    Susan says she will prove them wrong. She has started a Pennsylvania-based correspondence course that both her mother and sister completed. For $985, it provides textbooks, online tests and teacher support via phone and e-mail. The rush to cash in on dropouts has made such correspondence courses and "virtual high schools" the Wild West of secondary education, a multimillion-dollar industry that can offer a valuable second chance but has suffered at times from poor oversight and a dizzying array of self-styled accrediting institutions, many of which aren't recognized by mainstream colleges.

    There is, not surprisingly, partisan division over the dropout problem. Liberals say dropouts are either a by-product of testing mania or an unavoidable result of public schools' being starved for funding. But more conservative reform advocates, like Marcus Winters, a senior research associate at the Manhattan Institute, disagree. "Spending more money just has not worked," he says. "We've doubled the amount we spend per pupil since the '70s, and the problem hasn't budged."

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