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Students in overalls and hard hats saw and sand boards for new trim at the construction site where they're currently working. They attend a dropout recovery school in the District, and they use the construction skills they've learned at school to renovate low-income housing. One of the students, 22-year-old Omar Mobley, measures a plank of wood.
"You gotta know math if you wanna do construction. You gotta read a measuring tape," he says. "It ain't as easy as it looks ... Basically you gotta know your division."
Mobley dropped out of school a few years ago after his twin brother was shot and killed. His is just one of dozens of rough stories of students at YouthBuild Public Charter School in Northwest D.C.
The YouthBuild pupils are part of the minority of dropouts that return to school seeking a traditional high school diploma or a GED certificate at one of these "second chance schools" — often the last lifeline for many of them.
Supporting students with a second chance
In seven years, the number of students at YouthBuild has gone from 50 to 110. They spend 40 percent of their time working construction, and 60 percent in G.E.D. diploma courses. The students are 20 years old, on average, and some come into the school reading and doing math at as low as a 2nd-grade reading level.
"We ask them when did they drop out of school, but it's really when did they check out of school," says Arthur Dade, who heads up YouthBuild Public Charter School. "They might have sat in a classroom for two years and not been educated."
After his brother was shot, Mobley says, he just couldn't keep his life together.
"I kind of lost my mind," Mobley says. "Like banging my head against the wall and stuff."
He felt his life was spiraling out of control. Going to school just made it worse; he couldn't concentrate because classes were so chaotic, he says. He missed a lot of days, and eventually stopped going back.
Now at YouthBuild, Mobley has perfect attendance. He likes the small classes and feels the teachers there are different.
"They're strict, they're not taking no fighting," he says. "They help us not just with our school work, but with our outside life too."
Another student, 23-year-old Blanca Morales, is painting a wall. Morales dropped out of school in 12th grade to work at McDonalds, after her father lost his job. Even when she was going to class, she struggled with writing essays in English.
I couldn't understand it. I was so frustrated, so I get out of school, I drop out," she says in a thick Spanish accent. "I regret it. Maybe by this time I will be in college reaching my goals, the ones that I had before."
For some, the first time doing well in school
These students are working toward a GED certificate, even though research suggests GEDs don't carry the same weight as a regular high school diploma. Students also learn construction because the U.S. Department of Labor funds the school for that purpose, even though most students don't want or can't get construction jobs.
But students are able to use the certificate as proof they've been able to complete something, points out Dade, the school's director.
"This is the first time they've had success in an academic environment," he says. Dade is trying to find money to fund career training programs the students are interested in, such as those for home health aides or retail sales jobs.
But even with a lot of support, it's difficult to keep these students in school. Last year, 68 percent of students stayed at YouthBuild, which means 32 percent dropped out. The previous year, the school retained 58 percent of students.
The school faces immense challenges. Half the students are parents and more than half don't speak English as a first language. It's also an older population so students sometimes chafe at rules such as having to wear a uniform and not being able to text in class.
But YouthBuild pays students approximately $8 per hour when they are working construction and $15 per hour when they're in class. Dade says every incentive helps.
"We're mindful that if we fail them, the future is very, very dim," he says.
Educators have to believe 'it's not too late'
Another educator keenly aware of the gravity of her students' situations is Azalia Speight, the principal of Luke C. Moore Academy in Northeast D.C., a DCPS alternative school for children who are the most "disengaged and disconnected."
Many are in foster care, have spent time in prison, or have been expelled from other schools. In Speight's two and a half years as principal, the school has lost six students to gun violence.
The students have overwhelming social and emotional needs that have to be addressed before they can be successful academically, Speight says. And sometimes, at the end of a hard day, she struggles not to point a finger at all the adults at home and in school who "could have and should have" helped these children in years past.
"You can almost pinpoint the stage in their life where they started to take a left turn and went in the wrong direction," she says. "99 percent of it starts with external factors that force vulnerable, impressionable students into situations where they're forced to make this bad move or do this bad thing.
But she takes comfort by telling herself it's not too late. These students have decided to come back to school, and now she can make a difference. Attendance is up: they're now able to fill a basketball team.
The year before Speight was principal, 43 students graduated from Moore. That number has tripled in two years.
'Every day, we're failing kids'
Second chance schools in the District use a variety of methods to keep these students engaged, including matching returning students with peer and adult mentors, starting school at 11 a.m. instead of at 8 a.m., and "accelerated credit recovery," where students can earn more credits in a shorter period of time.
D.C. Public Schools is making those efforts because Chancellor Kaya Henderson knows these students have had unhappy school experiences in the past, from teachers telling them they couldn't instead of they could, to schools expelling them instead of helping them, or not getting them help when they had just arrived in a new country.
"If I knew that we had done everything that we were supposed to and they just didn't come, then I could shift the responsibility," Henderson says. "But I know ... because I see every day, that we're failing kids all along the way, and when they turn 17 or 18 and they don't give a hoot anymore, I still feel responsible."
Ramifications of persistent, high dropout rates
There are not enough alternative schools to accommodate all the students who’ve dropped out in D.C. and across the nation. Not providing every opportunity for these students to graduate has implications on every level. There's the economic argument.
"In this information age economy, there's only one currency that matters and that's education," says Bob Wise, the former governor of West Virginia who now heads the Alliance for Excellent Education, an advocacy organization. "And the single greatest economic stimulus package for any community is a high school diploma."
If just one year's class of dropouts in D.C. was cut in half, those graduates could earn $17 million more in an average year than if they didn't graduate, according to the Alliance's calculations.
"That's the kind of economic development you want," Wise says.
The social and moral effects of dropouts on families and communities are also enormous, according to John Bridgeland of Civic Enterprises, a public policy firm in D.C. Students who don't graduate usually don't vote and don't volunteer, he says.
"You look at what happens to these young people in terms of disproportionately being incarcerated, on welfare, increased healthcare costs, living in poverty, unable to raise families," he says. "And then those that go on to have children, having children who disproportionately drop out. It's a cycle of despair."
Which is why maybe the best argument for why more students need to graduate high school might be that of lost human potential. Not graduating means the loss of each of these student's hopes and goals and dreams, the DNA of what it means to be American.
"Our Declaration talks about the equal opportunity and life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," says Bridgeland. "I don't think those things are possible without a decent education."
For more than 1 million children who drop out of school every year across the country, including the 1,200 in D.C., the American Dream may well be just that: a dream.
This story was produced with help from Ginger Moored and assistance of Natalie Yuravlivker. It is part of WAMU 88.5's American Graduate series. "American Graduate - Let's Make It Happen" is a public media initiative supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.