MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Just under 4 million kids start ninth grade every year, but one in four won't graduate. Today, we begin a series profiling five dropouts. We'll hear how they're doing in this tough economy, and about the emotional toll dropping out has taken on their lives.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Our first story is about African-Americans. About half of the kids who drop out every year are black. Most will end up unemployed and by their mid-30s, six of 10 black male dropouts will have spent time in prison.

In Chicago, NPR's Claudio Sanchez found one young man who dropped out, spent time in jail, and is now getting a second chance.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: For a kid who's been hustling and gang-banging on the streets of south Chicago for much of his life, 19-year-old Patrick Lundvick doesn't look menacing at all. He's chubby, about 5-foot-8, with a mop of curly black hair, light-green eyes and a friendly disposition. Patrick grew up poor, an only child raised by a single mom who couldn't always be there for him.

Mr. PATRICK LUNDVICK (Student, Youth Connections Charter School): It's always been like that. I mean, I did everything on my own.

SANCHEZ: Patrick's decision to drop out of school at age 15 was his own, too.

Mr. LUNDVICK: I did two years freshman, and I just stopped going to school. You think all right, well, my friends are doing it, so I'm going to do it.

SANCHEZ: Patrick didn't set foot in school for three years. When his mother finally found out, she shipped him off to a boot camp. But Patrick kept coming back to the streets, where he got another kind of education: learning the drug trade.

Mr. LUNDVICK: Like all right, the corner. You can see your corner store. In your eyes, that's just a normal corner store. But when I look at it, I see money. I see where I chill every day. I see my normal custies(ph) - custies, customers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LUNDVICK: It's just your whole perception changes, even when you lose people. Like, I've already had three of my own best friends shot dead. And one of them I actually had to witness.

SANCHEZ: It was a $75,000 cocaine deal gone bad, says Patrick. Let me show you where it happened, he says.

Mr. LUNDVICK: I had one of my guys right here on 38th and Paulina. He was shot in the neck, layed out. These streets is no joke.

SANCHEZ: To the police, Patrick was just another small-time thug.

Mr. LUNDVICK: A cop sees me, they study, want to stop and look. You know, who's that? Oh, well, that's Phantom - grab him, grab him.

SANCHEZ: Phantom?

Mr. LUNDVICK: Yeah, it's the name I go by.

(Soundbite of vehicles)

SANCHEZ: Patrick was 16 the first time he went to jail for selling drugs. You could say it was the first job he ever had, a gateway to a life of crime.

Mr. LUNDVICK: Arson, attempted robbery, armed robbery, I got caught stealing a boat off the river. I was on house arrest for four months, not allowed near water.

SANCHEZ: That was last September. All told, Patrick has spent more than two years in jail and no one, not even Patrick, suffered more than his mother.

Mr. LUNDVICK: Every time I was in a pair of handcuffs, or I was brought home by the cops, or she got that phone call from me at lockup and I just heard her ball up, like - again, again; when are you going to stop?

SANCHEZ: Well, Patrick says he has stopped. He's now free on probation and enrolled in Youth Connections, which runs 22 charter schools in Chicago that deal exclusively with dropouts.

Patrick is a star pupil. He's really good with computers. And unlike most dropouts, he's never had trouble with reading or math. But even if he gets his high school diploma, Patrick has no illusions that his search for a good job and a better life will be easy.

Mr. LUNDVICK: Your criminal record will hurt you no matter what. Say you go for a job interview and the boss just looks at you and decides he doesn't want to give you a chance. Well, keep going back every week, once a week, to just say, hey, have you filled the position yet? Show him that you're not out there on the streets. No. Everyone can change - everyone.

SANCHEZ: Getting people to buy that, of course, is another matter. The numbers, after all, tell a different story. Over half of the prison population in Illinois is made up of black male dropouts who couldn't or didn't want to change.

People who work with dropouts say the reason shouldn't surprise anyone.

Dr. JACK WUEST (Executive Director, Alternative Schools Network): The problem is - overwhelmingly, from my point of view - is poverty.

SANCHEZ: Jack Wuest heads the Chicago-based Alternative Schools Network, an organization devoted to rescuing dropouts and teaching them job skills.

Mr. WUEST: There's no real healthy economy. In a lot of the neighborhoods, the jobs have left in mass numbers. Eleven percent of black teens in the city had jobs; that's a jobless rate of 89 percent. It's devastating.

SANCHEZ: Schools and alternative programs for dropouts in Chicago, meanwhile, are filled to capacity. These programs are supposed to give young people a second chance and for that, Patrick is grateful. But for all his talk of turning a new leaf, he's unwilling to make a clean break from his past and the drug dealers and gang bangers he still calls his friends.

Mr. LUNDVICK: I can't say I will not hang out with any of like, the people I know, 'cause some of the people that are in that life have saved my life.

SANCHEZ: Patrick says the two years he spent in jail, the friends he's lost to drugs and violence, forced him to open his eyes so that someday soon, he says, his mother will see him in college, in a great job, a nice home, making an honest living.

Patrick expects to earn his high school diploma in January 2012.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

NORRIS: Nearly half of the nation's dropouts are girls. Most leave school because they get pregnant.

Unidentified Woman: Like my son, I reach home every day, I take him to school every day. My son is like the number one kid in class right now. I am breaking the cycle. I am breaking it.

NORRIS: Tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, a young woman's struggle to go back to school and provide a better life for her children.

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