STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Some kids in Baltimore, Maryland fight a daily battle against poverty, homelessness and a drug epidemic that's ravaged their neighborhoods. Many kids miss a lot of school and eventually just stop going. City officials are trying to prevent that by reaching out to kids early and holding their parents accountable. NPR's Claudio Sanchez has the story, which is part of our series this week looking at school dropouts.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: When Danny Lamont Jones showed up at Tench Tilghman Middle School in East Baltimore, he was living only a few blocks away in a homeless shelter, where I first met him.
Mr. DANNY LAMONT JONES: I think I was, like, 12 when I first came here. Living in a shelter, like, with people I don't know, everything was, like, everything was just going downhill, and I ain't know what to do.
SANCHEZ: Danny had missed the entire sixth grade and most of seventh grade. He barely knew how to read.
Mr. JONES: I was lost, I was kind of lost 'cause being out of school for so long, I was young and I had a crazy mind.
SANCHEZ: That craziness, he says, was due in part to his mother.
Ms. BERNICE JONES: My name is Bernice Jones. I'm 56. I had 14 young 'uns, 38 grandkids and one great-grandchild.
SANCHEZ: Jobless, with a 10th-grade education, Mrs. Jones relies entirely on public assistance. She's an alcoholic and suffers from debilitating anxiety attacks.
Ms. JONES: Now I got myself in a situation I couldn't handle too much of anything. So I didn't know what to do. I just put the kids here and there, and right now my son is doing pretty good.
SANCHEZ: Danny says things aren't really OK, like his mom says. His 13 brothers and sisters are scattered. Two are in jail, some live with relatives. The oldest are on their own and rarely have contact with Danny. As for his father...
Mr. JONES: Last time I talked to him, he told me forget he was my father, and it hurted me. I kind of miss him, but I don't like him at all.
SANCHEZ: Growing up, Danny says he felt like he was all alone. Local organizations estimate that there are about 1,300 children like Danny in Baltimore - on their own, sometimes homeless, fatherless or with a sick, troubled parent. Most of these kids are in and out of school.
Ms. JAY-EL YON (Principal, Tench Tilghman Middle School): We know Danny. We've been to that shelter where Danny was, and it's the relationship with that shelter that's keeping Danny alive and keeping him out of gangs.
SANCHEZ: Jay-El Yon is the principal at Tench Tilghman. She says Danny raised lots of red flags not long after he enrolled as an eighth-grader at her school. He was quiet, struggling academically, and he didn't show up very often. Yon says if a child misses anywhere from 20 to 50 days of school a year, chances are that child is going to drop out.
Ms. YON: 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. You have to keep, you know, encouraging them and checking on them, and that's the toughest thing, I think, for some of our kids, like Danny.
SANCHEZ: These children face huge odds, says James P. Comer of Yale University. He's a leading expert on child development and high-poverty schools like those in East Baltimore.
Professor JAMES P. COMER (Yale University): If the school can compensate for the disruptive or troublesome culture that the child comes out of, the school can create a culture that can really overcome problems that children have and even help families get on their feet.
SANCHEZ: Comer says it's incredibly hard work, expensive and often controversial.
Baltimore, for example, has adopted a zero-tolerance policy in dealing with kids who miss school. Jay-El Yon says the district can fine parents $50 or put them in jail if their kids miss 20 or more days of school.
Ms. YON: That may be a last resort, to really send that message home. It is illegal to keep your child out of school.
SANCHEZ: The school district cited more than 400 parents this school year. The district's key strategy, though, has been placing teams of psychologists and counselors in schools like Tench Tilghman to identify the kids who are most at risk of dropping out.
Baltimore has gotten high marks and lots of news coverage for reducing both the dropout rate and truancy rate by half in just three years. But if you count the number of kids who start ninth grade every year, and the number that graduate four years later, the city's dropout rate is still pretty high - at least 45 percent by some estimates.
And that hasn't done much for Baltimore's collective angst about kids like Danny.
Mr. JONES: In my head, I think I have to prove a point that I'm not scared anymore.
SANCHEZ: These days, Danny says he doesn't feel so alone. His mom has cut way back on her drinking. She's found an apartment she can afford, so Danny has moved in with her and out of the shelter on Rose Street. Danny is supposed to start 10th grade next fall. I ask him, are you going to stay in school and get your diploma?
Mr. JONES: I actually don't know. I don't want to be an oddball or I don't want to be different or nothing, but I just, I don't know.
SANCHEZ: And so for all their efforts, no one who's intervened in this 15-year-old's life - not his principal, Ms. Yon, his teachers, or the people at the shelter who took him off the streets - no one can say with any degree of confidence that Danny is going to make it.
This uncertainty is what makes solving the dropout crisis so elusive.
Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.
INSKEEP: Now, as part of our series this week, we're also going to look at the financial struggles that dropouts face as adults decades after they quit school.
Unidentified Man: I'd go to a different job and there were several jobs, good-paying jobs I could have had, but because I didn't have a high school diploma, they wouldn't even consider me.
INSKEEP: Looking back on a long-ago decision to quit school. We'll hear that tomorrow.