Nov. 21, 2006 — -- With nearly a third of American students in the nation's top 100 public school districts failing to complete high school -- and that number tops 50 percent in some cities -- educators see an epidemic. But what can be done about it?
Some creative educators at a Washington state high school have a solution that seems to work. The school builds a support network for students most at risk of dropping out, such as Daniel Browning.
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Browning, 18, arrives at Clover Park High in Lakewood, Wash., each morning to raise the flag. It may seem like a small thing, but for Daniel Browning it's extraordinary. Two years ago, he was about to drop out of school.
"I missed so many days of school," he says. "From the very beginning of the school, that's about 140 days."
Browning wanted to leave school to support parents who were sick and out of work.
"It felt like the whole world was on my shoulders, and I was losing beyond belief. There was no way I could get out of it."
That's when Browning's ROTC teacher Col. Wayne Byron, intervened. He convinced Browning he was taking on too much responsibility and forfeiting his future.
"I said you have to step back, and one of the things is, you have to take time to be a child," Byron said.
Today Browning has a B-minus average and plans to go to college.
Four years ago at Clover Park High, nearly two-thirds of the students had dropped out or failed to graduate.
"When you look at numbers like that, its heartbreaking," says Clover Park Principal John Seaton.
Most of the students at Clover Park are poor. Many come from single-parent homes in which they often face a host of other problems.
But thanks to a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the school system overhauled the way it does business.
It split a school of 1,300 students into four smaller "learning communities," each with its own faculty.
The teachers now stay with the students all four years and create in effect surrogate families. Now 71 percent of students at Clover Park earn their diplomas.
Progress at this high school came from teachers getting to know their students and the challenges they face.
"Could be everything from the clothes they are wearing for the third day in a row. It could be the fact that you hear their stomachs growl and you can ask the question, 'are you hungry?'" says Seaton. "If you don't have a relationship you can ask the question and you just won't get an answer."
Senior Jessica Olson, 18, had been missing more than 50 days of school each year. No one in her family had ever graduated from high school. And her parents have separated.
"When you are in a bad situation at home, you feel depressed," says Olson. "Its hard to get up in the morning. Its hard to come sit in a classroom."
Olson was on the verge of dropping out, but Cecily Schmidt, a humanities teacher she'd grown close to, wouldn't let her quit.
"I think she felt safe with me, and I did a lot of listening from the beginning, and so we were able to forget his bond," says Schmidt.
"A lot of teachers encourage me just to keep coming, just to make it through the day," Olson explains.
Art teacher Linda Meo recently took her students to a college fair on her day off. "I had a great time, and I was really happy to see a lot of you there," she tells her class during a round table discussion about college.
At Clover Park, students increasingly buy into the message the teachers have been sending.