ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Eighty-one percent of the nation's high schoolers now graduate in four years. It sounds impressive.
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BARACK OBAMA: Our high school graduation rate has hit an all-time high.
SIEGEL: President Obama touting the number in this year's State of the Union address. Well, it turns out schools are achieving this in various ways. Some are using quick fixes and fudging their numbers while others are working hard to help potential dropouts. Today, Cory Turner of the NPR Ed team has this story from Iowa, the state with the highest graduation rate in the nation - 90 percent.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: This is where you find out what a state is made of. Go to its largest city where it's easy to find students living in poverty, many with single parents. The more challenges they face the more likely they are to drop out. And some cities even lump these at-risk teens together into special schools. Now look closely. Are these schools vibrant, caring spaces or dropout factories?
COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Head south on East Lacona Avenue.
TURNER: In Iowa, that city is Des Moines. That school is Scavo High, and it's Mary O'Hearn's job to find these struggling teens and get them to class.
O'HEARN: Some of our young people, you know - like, I have to say now which house? Where are you, you know?
TURNER: It's a Tuesday morning. O'Hearn insists she's not lost driving around this neighborhood of hard turns and dead ends. Finally...
O'HEARN: Yep, here we are. That is so funny. I wasn't that off then.
COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Arrived.
TURNER: Des Moines has six public high schools. Five are traditional. Then there's Scavo, where O'Hearn is a success case manager. Scavo's grad rate - 47 percent - is far worse than the others. But it has improved a lot - more than doubling since 2009. And this school has always had a tough job trying to re-engage students who have dropped out.
DARBY PAYNE: Hello.
TURNER: Like 17-year-old Darby Payne.
PAYNE: If it wasn't for Scavo, I probably wouldn't be on the verge of graduating right now.
TURNER: Payne sits in the front seat of O'Hearn's black Honda. She's pregnant and doesn't have a steady address or steady family helping her finish high school.
PAYNE: You kind of have to have a lot of discipline to make yourself do it when you don't have those people behind you telling you, you know, do it. You can do it. You got to do this, you know?
TURNER: Now O'Hearn is her cheerleader, helping Payne arrange her schedule and get an apartment through a program for young homeless mothers. She helps other Scavo teens, too, who text her constantly, things like this.
O'HEARN: Can you see if I have a warrant (laughter)?
TURNER: Turns out, that's one of the few things O'Hearn can't do. Here's Scavo's other success case manager, Tami Cross.
TAMI CROSS: You need food; we're going to give you food. You need a coat; we're going to get you a coat. You need a place to live; we're going to help you get a place to live. We do everything.
TURNER: Scavo High sits on the fourth floor of a newly renovated downtown campus surrounded by Des Moines school programs that are open to Scavo's 500 students. Here's a quick tour with Principal Rich Blonigan.
RICH BLONIGAN: In the basement is the automotive program. First floor is our - the downtown elementary school; second floor - culinary arts and the nursing program.
TURNER: Third floor's my favorite - career tech classrooms for radio broadcasting, fashion and...
BLONIGAN: So if I remember, I think there are stingrays in here, maybe even jellyfish in this tank.
TURNER: Marine biology - in Iowa. Even the fourth floor is more than just Scavo's classrooms and offices. It'll soon have its own medical and dental clinics and already offers students a food bank.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Do you need breakfast products?
TURNER: And a day care.
BLONIGAN: Welcome to Teddy Bear Town, ages 2 weeks to 3 years.
TURNER: These extras help keep many students in school, but not all, which is why class time at Scavo is flexible, too. Many students have to work, so they can take classes just in the morning or the afternoon or even later. Another perk is class size - small. I asked a bunch of current students how many people are in your math classes.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Six.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Seven.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: 10.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: Eight.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #5: Seven.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #6: Six.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #7: Eight.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #8: 10.
TURNER: Sixteen-year-old Shawndrea Clyce started at one of the city's traditional high schools, but she fell behind, she says, because it was just too impersonal.
SHAWNDREA CLYCE: The reason I didn't go is 'cause I didn't know nobody. It's a big school filled with hundreds of kids, and they don't care about that one person really. They don't have time, and they really don't get paid to just focus on one kid.
TURNER: Clyce says the only adult at her old school who clearly cared about her was her probation officer. At Scavo, she says, it's different.
CLYCE: Here, they focus on you. They push you, like - and everything that we see here, it's to graduate.
TURNER: Clyce, like Darby Payne, doesn't live with her parents, which is why at Scavo teachers don't just teach. They're also advocates, checking in regularly with students they've been assigned. Darin Henry teaches social studies.
DARIN HENRY: I hate to say family, but we try to create some of that in order to get to know the students. It's a smaller, intimate side of what education can be.
TURNER: The classes themselves stand out, too. Daryl Miller teaches physics off-campus at a nonprofit bicycle repair shop called the Des Moines Bike Collective.
DARYL MILLER: What we're going to be doing is we're going to be adding up these vectors so they have both size and direction.
TURNER: There's one more thing about Scavo that students love, but that some education experts don't. Eighteen-year-old Alicia Henry arrived at Scavo a year ago as a sophomore behind in credit. Now...
ALICIA HENRY: I could have graduated this year, but I chose not to.
TURNER: How did she do it?
A. HENRY: I basically finished 16 classes in a year.
TURNER: That's because classes that Scavo can take weeks, not months. Senior Brandon Shafer arrived last year after bouncing between three other traditional schools and falling way behind, but he quickly caught up.
BRANDON SHAFER: Biology class is one I did in four days. They gave me pretests, so I just passed the pretests so I didn't have to do any of the actual work.
TURNER: Shafer, like many at Scavo, was trying to get credit for a class he'd already taken.
SHAFER: I had been in the class before at a prior school and got kicked out, so the biggest part of Scavo is pretty much showing up and just giving effort.
TURNER: Do you feel like you're getting a good education?
SHAFER: Yeah. I mean, I've learned a lot more here than I have at any other school I've attended. I actually come to this one.
TURNER: Critics says this kind of fast-tracking often means lowering the bar for students. And I should say it is hard to know if teens here are really learning as much. Principal Rich Blonigan says they are. They have to meet the same standards, he says, and earn the same diploma as every other Des Moines high schooler.
BLONIGAN: There is no difference, just the name that's at the top of the diploma.
TURNER: And physics teacher Daryl Miller adds the goal of a place like Scavo isn't just to teach algebra or English.
MILLER: Show up. Do what you have to do when you're supposed to do it. That's a formula that you can use throughout life.
TURNER: To some people looking in from the outside, it looks like it's just less rigorous.
MILLER: The way I'd put it is that it's more about getting kids to buy back into the whole idea of school.
TURNER: Which explains why Scavo is funded using state dropout prevention dollars. And the strategy of surrounding teens with services and caring adults while making classes smaller and more flexible - it seems to keep them coming back. Again, Scavo's more than doubled its grad rate in five years, helping to improve Iowa's best in the nation rate. Let's finish this story the way roughly half of Scavo students finish.
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TURNER: Since students here work at their own pace, every few days someone earns the credits to graduate. When they do, they're allowed to walk the hallways ringing a small handbell, surrounded by friends. On this day, it's a student named Emily. Classmates and teachers clap from doorways. Soon, she'll become part of Iowa's high school graduation rate - 90 percent - an incredibly complicated number built of stories. Cory Turner, NPR News, Des Moines, Iowa.
EMILY: I say my best friends helped me so much.
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