STEVE INSKEEP, host:
In the weeks to come, millions of American kids will return to school and some will not. Every year about a million young people drop out of school. Girls drop out for a wide range of reasons, but the single biggest reason is that they get pregnant. NPR's Claudio Sanchez profiles one young woman struggling to finish her education while raising a family.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Not a day goes by that Lauren Ortega doesn't regret quitting high school.
Ms. LAUREN ORTEGA: 'Cause I, well, OK, when I turned 15, I got pregnant with my son.
SANCHEZ: It cut short so many things, says Lauren - a job, a car, her own apartment, college, and just being independent. Now 20 years old, Lauren complains about gaining weight and feeling a little lost, although she is studying to get her GED at a school for adults in San Bernardino, California.
That's where I first met Lauren and some of her classmates - all high school dropouts.
Ms. ORTEGA: Do I start, like, the whole beginning story like him?
Unidentified Woman: Yes.
Ms. ORTEGA: OK.
SANCHEZ: Lauren remembers she was starved for affection when she met Joseph, her boyfriend. She was only 14. Lauren says she clung to Joseph because she was so insecure - the result of a hellish childhood.
Ms. ORTEGA: Well, when I was little, my mom and dad got really into drugs, and my dad started to beat my mom. And we went to a women's shelter to get away from my dad. And once that started happening, my mom started doing, like, really hard drugs to make her hallucinate and leave us.
SANCHEZ: Lauren lost track of all the times her family had to move because her parents had squandered the rent money on drugs. Not much changed when they moved to San Bernardino. But when Lauren enrolled in high school here, it felt like a fresh start. She loved her English class, and for the first time, she says...
Ms. ORTEGA: I was doing pretty good. Until I met him, my boyfriend, and then I just got involved with him.
SANCHEZ: Lauren was in 9th grade, Joseph was in 10th. He told her he loved her. They were inseparable.
Ms. ORTEGA: We weren't in school every day like we were supposed to. We were always at his house or going out to eat or to the movies. My mind was focused on something else.
SANCHEZ: A year later, Lauren got pregnant with Joseph's baby - a baby she didn't want but decided to keep.
Lauren was like many young Latinas in San Bernardino, a sprawling city of 200,000. Latinas have the highest teen pregnancy and birth rates of any racial or ethnic group. This mirrors the national figures which show that 41 percent of Latinas drop out of school because they get pregnant.
In Lauren's case, she took off for Los Angeles and had her baby. She wanted nothing to do with her parents or with Joseph, but soon Lauren ran out of options. She felt she had no choice but to go back to San Bernardino and move in with Joseph. Still, she was determined to earn her high school diploma, so she enrolled in night school.
Ms. ORTEGA: And then I got pregnant with my daughter.
SANCHEZ: Lauren dropped out of night school and realized she no longer wanted to be with Joseph. I asked Lauren, does he know you want to leave him?
Ms. ORTEGA: No. He believes that I love him. I don't love him. Nuh-uh. As a matter of fact, I left him. I broke up with him, got in my car, got my stuff, got my kids, was about to leave, but I thought, I'm not going to finish anything if I leave.
SANCHEZ: With two kids and no job skills, Lauren is totally dependent on Joseph. So for now, at home, she pretends everything is fine.
(Soundbite of door closing)
SANCHEZ: I saw that I big dog and I thought, uh-oh. He friendly?
Ms. ORTEGA: (Unintelligible). How are you?
Later, I visit Lauren at her home.
You're Joseph? How you doing, man?
JOSEPH: Good to meet you. Come in.
SANCHEZ: Lauren, Joseph and their children, ages three and four, live in a poor neighborhood just north of downtown San Bernardino. Joseph says it's a high-crime area. That's why they have three pit bulls, all named Peaches.
(Soundbite of dogs barking)
SANCHEZ: And this is your youngest (unintelligible)...
Ms. ORTEGA: Yes, this is the little...
SANCHEZ: Their small two-bedroom house at the end of a dirt street was a gift from Joseph's mother before she died. But it's is in disrepair. Joseph graduated from high school, but he's unemployed. What do you do, I ask.
JOSEPH: Anything. Forklifting, warehousing. No one calls. No one calls back.
SANCHEZ: How do you make ends meet, I ask Lauren.
Ms. ORTEGA: Well, we get welfare for the kids - just for the kids.
SANCHEZ: Privately, Lauren tells me her biggest fear is that if she leaves Joseph, she and her children will really have to struggle to stay out of poverty. Lauren's fear is well-founded. The research shows that 75 percent of female dropouts go on welfare after their first child.
Still, Lauren seems intent on not repeating the cycle of failure that she says cursed her family and ruined her childhood. Lauren says her children deserve better.
Ms. ORTEGA: Like my son, I read to him 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.
SANCHEZ: Easier said than done. Lauren was expelled from the GED program she was about to complete after a fight with another student, a fight that landed her boyfriend, Joseph, in jail when he intervened.
Lauren transferred to another GED program, but the job she was hoping to get as a dispatcher with the county sheriff's office vanished. Lauren Ortega says she and Joseph now plan to marry.
Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.
INSKEEP: And our series continues later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Many of the schools the government calls dropout factories are located in small towns.
Unidentified Man: I know many friends that dropped out. Some stay at home, do drugs. Some don't even live with their parents. Some moved out. Left, ran away.
INSKEEP: So later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED we'll look at dropouts in rural America.