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In Cleveland, Offering Choices To Help Kids Graduate

When it came time to apply to high school, 19-year-old Keihen Kitchen of Cleveland wasn't interested in the city's offerings. She found success at a rigorous, science-based school and now attends community college. Amy Hansen/IdeaStream hide caption

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Amy Hansen/IdeaStream

When it came time to apply to high school, 19-year-old Keihen Kitchen of Cleveland wasn't interested in the city's offerings. She found success at a rigorous, science-based school and now attends community college.

Amy Hansen/IdeaStream

The US high school graduation rate is at an all-time high. But why? NPR Ed partnered with 14 member stations around the country to bring you the stories behind that number. Check out the rest of the stories here in our slideshow. And find out what's happening in your state.

Like most states, Ohio's graduation rate has been on a steady upswing. In 2011, it was 80 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In 2013, it hit 82 percent.

The state's second largest district, Cleveland, has long struggled to improve its rate — just 45.3 percent in 2010, according to the most recent data.

The city hopes to improve that number with a program it's calling the Cleveland Plan. The idea is to offer students a "portfolio" of school choices, including district-affiliated charter schools, parochial schools, specialized high schools, and a handful of traditional neighborhood schools.

When it came time to apply to high school, 19-year-old Keihen Kitchen wasn't interested in the city's offerings.

"I really didn't want to be in a public school," she says. "We heard all the rumors. There was a lot of violence, I heard, and race differences."

But private schools cost money, and there wasn't much of that to go around in her single-parent household. Through a district-wide lottery system, Kitchen secured a seat at MC2STEM High School, a rigorous, science-based school. It focuses on project-based learning, has strong ties to area businesses, and requires students to demonstrate mastery before moving on.

On her first day at MC2STEM, the school looked similar to the very schools she'd tried to avoid.

"Kids running around," she remembers, "banging on lockers, lots of noise, and they're trying to start fights, and talking about their clothes and their hair."

Slowly, though, that impression began to change. Students came in early and stayed late to work on projects. Kitchen herself loved the classes and the relationships she formed with teachers.

Then, trouble. She hurt her arm, and a prescribed painkiller had unintended effects. The medicine weakened her memory, Kitchen says, and she missed nearly a year of class.

But the school's staff worked with her to set up an independent study program that she could continue from home. And, after getting back on track, she graduated in 2013.

"My spirits were very low," Kitchen says. "Without that support system, I feel like I wouldn't have had that drive to come back and fight through that."

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Now she's enrolled at a local community college, training to become a steelworker — something she says she wouldn't have been able to do without the support she got from MC2STEM.