Failing Students Get 'Wired' For Success At Georgia Factory

Partner content from Youth Radio

An electric wire factory in western Georgia is staffed almost entirely by teenagers. They are there because of a partnership between a local company, Southwire, and the Carroll County school system. They teamed up six years ago to try to reduce the high school dropout rate.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This next story suggests that there can be rewards for failure, or at least you can be given another chance. A recent report from Education Week puts the nation's high school graduation rate at nearly 75 percent, the highest rate in 40 years. Good news. Still, roughly 1 in 4 students starting ninth grade today won't graduate. Enter Southwire, a wire and cable manufacturer.

The company is hiring students most likely to be that 1 in 4. Main requirement: You have to be failing. Youth Radio's Barbara Dougherty reports.

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BARBARA DOUGHERTY, BYLINE: This factory floor in Carrollton, Ga., is filled with teenagers. They're standing at machines wearing goggles, ear plugs; and some even wear steel-toed boots. They wear T-shirts with local high school logos. They man huge, conveyor-like machines that wrap metal wire around oversized wooden spools.

DERIEK FOSTER: We have several different wire stations. You see one through five right here. They're all rewinding stations.

DOUGHERTY: Deriek Foster is one of about 170 teens who work for Southwire at this factory. He's a safety inspector. He's 18 now and started when he was a junior in high school.

FOSTER: When I first started, you'd either be pulling wire, making reels, or, you know, spool lines, which is an assembly line to make spools.

DOUGHERTY: To get this job, Foster met some pretty unusual qualifications. Southwire Vice President Mike Wiggins lists them off.

MIKE WIGGINS: You got to be 16 and in school. You've got to be flunking. Number three, you've got to be socio-economically disadvantaged. Number four is an unusual thing, it's attendance. But it's not good attendance, it's bad attendance.

DOUGHERTY: Basically, students have to be at risk of dropping out of high school to land a job here. It's all part of a program called 12 For Life. Southwire created it in 2007 together with the local county school system to try and reduce the dropout rate and improve the lives of teens like Deriek Foster.

FOSTER: I'm pretty sure that I wouldn't have finished high school. I'm pretty sure I'd probably be at home right now sleeping.

DOUGHERTY: Instead, while working here, he continued studying. In fact, there are classrooms right in the middle of this 92,000 square foot facility.

MEDINA PARRISH: This right here is our chemistry lab.

DOUGHERTY: That's Medina Parrish. She's a shy 19-year-old who I met as she was trying to finish up her high school degree. She was making eight bucks an hour here. That's 75 cents more than Georgia's minimum wage. And that income helped her family.

PARRISH: I was able to get what we actually needed. It kind of gave me an ease to look forward to the future.

DOUGHERTY: When students achieve perfect attendance in school, they get small pay raises or performance incentives. So what's in it for the company? Here's Southwire's Mike Wiggins.

WIGGINS: We put 12 For Life in place to help us assure that we had a workforce.

DOUGHERTY: But Tom Smith, professor of Education at Vanderbilt University, says programs like this need to get the balance right between vocational training and academic knowledge.

TOM SMITH: I think you might have some concerns that those skills might not be portable to other companies.

DOUGHERTY: Still, he adds, Southwire is trying to solve a problem that stymies many schools that tend to deal with struggling students by simply holding them back, or making them repeat classes.

SMITH: And oftentimes the same techniques that didn't work for a particular student the first time, don't necessarily work a second time.

DOUGHERTY: But this program worked for Deriek Foster. He has a good part-time job - not bad in a county that has an unemployment rate of more than 10 percent. And he attends college now that he has a high school diploma.

FOSTER: Being able to accomplish something that I didn't know that I could do tells me that I can do anything that I set my mind to.

DOUGHERTY: County school officials say the high school graduation rate has gone up by 10 percent from six years ago. And they say the 12 For Life program is the reason.

For NPR News, I'm Barbara Dougherty.

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GREENE: And Barbara's piece was produced by Youth Radio. You heard on NPR News.

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