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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris. This week, we've been talking about dropouts and how they're doing in this tough economy. The government has a name for schools that fail to graduate more than half their students: dropout factories. And they're not just a big city problem. Small, rural districts also have their fair share. So, we're going to South Carolina today. It has more dropout factories than any other state - 50 in all. NPR's Claudio Sanchez traveled to rural Oconee County and found that lots of teenagers there don't just think they need a high school diploma.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Oconee County, South Carolina, sits in the far west fringes of the state, just a few miles from the Georgia border. This is where Nick Dunn was born and where his father died in a car accident one day before Christmas. Nick was 11.

NICK DUNN: When he died, everything went downhill. I didn't know my wrongs and rights. I didn't do anything. I was lazy. That's when my anger built. I was just Mr. Bad Person. I mean, I really didn't care about anything. Didn't do my work at all. Thought about dropping out.

SANCHEZ: Just like his older brothers and sister. They all dropped out before 10th grade. Nick, 16, is the youngest in the family. When he enrolled at Seneca Middle School, Nick was the kid with a hair-triggered temper - always angry, ready to clobber anybody who looked at him the wrong way. Muscular, built like a wrestler, Nick was chronically absent. When he wasn't in school, he was getting high. Drugs were easy to get.

DUNN: I ain't going to name them but I've done some. And I done some crimes and I faced a judge a couple of times. I don't really want to talk about that. But I had a lot of problems going on.

SANCHEZ: This year, Nick was suspended twice for throwing a chair at another student and disrespecting teachers at Seneca High. Everybody in town seemed to hear about it, says Nick. In a community this small, he says, people know who the bad kids are - the ones who just don't fit in at school.

DUNN: I know many friends that dropped out. Some stay home, do drugs. Some don't even live with their parents. Some moved out, left, ran away.

SANCHEZ: Oconee County school officials admit they don't know exactly how many kids simply disappear. But every year, Al Leroy, the principal at Seneca Middle School, gets a list with the names of in-coming seventh graders with a history of truancy and bad behavior. Leroy says Nick arrived with an especially tough group.

AL LEROY: These young men were extremely angry, very disrespectful. They were absent a lot and it was hard to track them. We didn't know exactly where they were.

SANCHEZ: Leroy says these kids had no interest in school. They think they'll do just fine. You see, says Leroy, for a long time in this old railroad town, dropping out of school didn't keep people from finding a job in the local textile mills or in farming. These jobs were passed from one generation to the next, so it was no big deal if you didn't have a high school diploma.

LEROY: The same argument is still pervasive in our school community: Well, my parents dropped out, they turned out OK. Our community struggles with that a good bit.

SANCHEZ: South Carolina ranks near the bottom nationally in high school graduation rates, in part because so many rural schools here have trouble hanging on to their students. In Oconee County, one out of four ninth graders doesn't graduate. Schools superintendent Mike Lucas, says it was a lot worse when schools were legally segregated not just by race but by class.

MIKE LUCAS: Even the white culture, there was a mill culture and there was a more affluent culture. And what's different now is we have to educate every child.

SANCHEZ: If not, says Lucas, one of three things happens:

LUCAS: They end up in prison. They end up on drugs or alcohol.

SANCHEZ: And they end up jobless. The unemployment rate in Oconee County is more than 10 percent. It's at least twice that for 18- to 24-year-olds. Lucas says kids are slowly realizing that without a high school diploma, their chances of getting a job that pays a living wage are zilch. But even if kids want to stay in school, some face huge hurdles at home. Nick didn't want me to visit his home. But his mother Deborah Gilmore Dunn said, you're welcome anytime.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)

SANCHEZ: Hi. Mrs. Dunn, a petite frail woman, answers the door with a tiny dog in her arms. Another six small, sickly dogs roam the house. The smell of urine hangs in the air. The courtroom scene from the movie "Philadelphia" is playing on television. There's clutter everywhere. Can we find a place to sit? It's hard not to bump into furniture. Piles of clothes, ceramic statues and all kinds of wall clocks in disrepair take up most of the living room. Nick's mom has turned her home into a halfway house for down and out relatives and stray dogs.

As for Nick, Mrs. Dunn says he's a good son - stubborn but good. She says his troubles in middle school had little to do with problems at home and everything to do with uncaring teachers.

DEBORAH GILMORE DUNN: Nick would come home and he would tell me, he'd say, Momma, those teachers, they expect me to respect them and they don't respect me at all.

SANCHEZ: At Seneca Middle School, administrators say Mrs. Dunn means well but she's like many parents who, for whatever reason, haven't provided a stable home. Tammy Brock, one of Nick's former counselors says lots of kids like Nick are living in what she calls chaotic conditions.

TAMMY BROCK: When I look at these children, they don't have a clue what it means to be on a regular schedule at home. And that's the difficult part because they can't see beyond this next hour, much less into the future to see what's going to happen to them in the future. They are crippled by the fact that they don't have any support at home. So, if we don't do it who will do it?

SANCHEZ: If kids fall through the cracks, Brock says, it's because rural school systems like Oconee County have only a fraction of the resources that urban and suburban schools have. And when parents don't help, it's almost impossible to rescue these kids. Although in Nick's case, his mother's advice doesn't seem to matter to him. Despite her misgivings, Nick is fixated on becoming a professional, mixed martial arts fighter.

DUNN: You can come in my room real quick.

DUNN: Oh no.

DUNN: It's a mess but I don't care.

DUNN: Oh, come on.

SANCHEZ: During my visit to his home, Nick ignores his mother's objections and shows me his room piled high with all kinds of exercise gear.

DUNN: Boxing equipment, wrestling equipment, weight equipment, bench. I mean, got the whole nine yards.

SANCHEZ: Nick says if his father were alive, he would approve. But even if his mom is right and the martial arts thing doesn't work out...

DUNN: I got a plan C, D, E. I got welding; I got masonry, carpentry, maybe computers.

SANCHEZ: There's nothing I can't do, says Nick, with or without a high school diploma. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

NORRIS: For some kids, just getting to school is a major hurdle.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: In communities like East Baltimore, every child in your class is at risk. You don't know what they had to go through to come to school every day.

NORRIS: Intervening early to keep kids from dropping out, that is tomorrow on MORNING EDITION.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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