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The United States has roughly 35 million high school dropouts, a staggering number that continues to increase each day for any number of reasons.
But on the 11th floor of Salt Lake City's Walker Center, employees in an innovative business venture reach out to mentor and educate this fractured population through online learning and the use of technology to keep in touch.
"Most [dropouts] are extremely bright and extremely capable. But there was some drastic event in their life that caused them not to be able to attend school," said Jeff Beck, director of technology and media for The American Academy.
Whether detoured by a surprise pregnancy, social anxiety, legal trouble, financial woes, getting bullied or an illness either their own or that of a family member these lost students make up the target market for the Academy's NoDropouts program.
The company also runs a private online high school, certified by the Northwest Accreditation Commission, which includes students from nearly every state in the nation many of them too old to attend a public high school. But by far the biggest part of the business, and its recent growth, is the NoDropouts program, which seeks to serve the 5 million to 6 million high school-age youths who are not enrolled in school.
"Once they reach an age where they can't attend school anymore, they become part of that 35 million," said Gregg Rosann, the Academy's co-founder and president. "So we try to move upstream and see if we can stem the tide much earlier in the process."
To date, the Academy has graduated close to 60 students from its online high school, and 25 teens have earned diplomas through its dropout recovery program. About 600 kids signed up for NoDropouts in the past six months, Rosann added. Many need to finish 10 to 15 credits, he said, which is the equivalent of two to three years in a traditional school setting.
Within its 3,500 square feet of office space in downtown Salt Lake City, the Academy employs 18 people. Some serve as recruiters or online mentors and sit in cubicles papered with Post-it notes bearing student names. Others are stationed near stacks of laptop computers that are being prepared to ship to recent recruits.
The laptops are provided by through a partnership with Verizon Wireless and are offered to students for free in exchange for the privately held Academy paying for the students' monthly wireless service. Where school district policies allow, students get to keep the computers, valued at $250 to $300.
For some students, Internet access can be counterproductive, and the Academy blocks certain sites and also adjusts Internet access based on progress.
"If they're falling behind, we throttle back what they can access," Rosann said. "We let them back on Facebook when they finish a defined number of assignments."
Such issues as partnerships and computer policies represent growth that belies the Academy's humble beginnings.
"We started in 2007," Rosann said. "I was the first employee to come onboard."
Rebekah Richards, who serves as the Academy's chief academic officer, joined the startup when it consisted of "me and a card table," Rosann said. Shortly thereafter, Beck signed on.
From the start, the Academy's online curriculum was designed to give students the flexibility they needed in their day-to-day scheduling. As it expanded to include the NoDropouts program, a caring support network was established to help keep them on track.
"We were finding our way," Rosann said. By 2009, the Academy began partnering with school districts "to help the 5 to 6 million kids not in school who should be."
Today, the venture contracts with 41 districts in six states: Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon and Washington (although not in Utah, but more about that later). In those locations, 40 local advocates have been hired to conduct weekly meetings with students and provide assistance, including connecting them with social services that can help them deal with some of life's roadblocks. Pay ranges for advocates weren't revealed, but many have second jobs.
School districts pay no upfront costs for the program and bear no financial risk, Rosann said of the Academy's creative pay-per-performance model.
"The district recovers funds that are available to educate the child when the child re-enrolls in the district," Rosann said. "They pay us a portion of that funding based on the student's performance."
Currently, the Academy has no direct competitors, Rosann said, because most virtual education companies have positioned themselves as rivals to school districts and offer cyber support for homeschooling.
"NoDropouts does the opposite," Rosann said, by partnering with districts to bring their students back and furnishing the flexibility and support needed to overcome the obstacles causing the dropout dilemma.
Once all credits have been completed, the student receives a diploma from his or her home school and district, not from the Academy.
The Hillsborough County School District in Tampa, Fla., is the eighth-largest in the nation, with more than 200,000 students. Hillsborough contracted with the Academy earlier this year, handing over a list of 2,600 names that recruiters could begin contacting.
"Sometimes they're not easy to find," said enrollment counselor Bailey Nielson. "We have to go through relatives and friends to finally find the student."
Once they've made contact and explained the program, the response is overwhelmingly positive.
"We very rarely get anyone who says they're not interested," Bailey said. "Over 90 percent sign up."
Students make no financial commitment, but Rosann emphasized that NoDropouts is not a "come get a free laptop" program.
"We set a pretty high bar for them," he said.
Students supply a list of friends and relatives they can count on for moral support as they pursue their diplomas. If a student fails to log in for a few days, these individuals are notified. And when a student does well on a test or completes a credit, those supporters hear about the progress so they can dish out praise.
Although the company capitalizes on technology to deliver its services, Rosann said the dropout recovery program is so much more than a computer, user name and password.
"It has to address that fact that these kids have complex lives," Rosann said. "What we offer is local advocacy that clears away the roadblocks and clutter in their lives."
Rosann and Beck rolled out a large map of Hillsborough's district, speckled with red dots, each representing a dropout's location. This visual aid helped the staff determine where to place its local advocates.
"There's something about this district that's really special," Rosann beamed. "These kids are accruing credits at a really high rate they're super-engaged."
Tampa's local advocate, Michael Thomas, 38, probably has a lot to do with that.
With a bachelor's degree in criminal justice and minor in psychology, coupled with almost two decades of social work experience, Thomas was well-equipped for the new role he took on in July.
At one point, one of his students called him to say he'd have to leave the program because his mother was kicking him out of the house. Thomas spent several hours setting up shelter for the boy, but also contacted the mother to broker a dialogue between her and her son.
"They were able to talk through their issues," Thomas said. "And he's still in the program today.
"This program is a trailblazer," he added, noting that it was "like fireworks" when he launched the weekly student meet-ups. "Kids are coming out of the woodwork, and they're excited."
For one thing, Thomas offers his students hope that productive doors can open as they increase their level of education.
"The economy has been my soapbox to keep them encouraged," Thomas said.
"A big part of it is mentoring these kids and helping them understand what it will take to get to graduation," Rosann said. "So we do a lot of expectation setting."
The software is set up so that every day when students log on, they see their individualized graduation goal, but right next to that are the number of assignments they personally need to accomplish that day.
"We hear often from our kids that this is the first time they understood clearly what they're required to do to get a final grade," Rosann said.
About 60 percent of Thomas' students are female, and many are single mothers.
"They come from all nationalities. I'm seeing myriad situations," Thomas said, noting that some have strong family support and others are having to make it on their own.
"It can be intense, at other times fun and lighthearted. But I try to make them stay focused and maximize that window that we have."
His greatest reward so far, Thomas said, is "participating in a life being turned around."
One student, Edwin, needs one more credit to graduate and has earned A's and B's in his coursework.
"He'll be one of our first grads in the state of Florida," Thomas said. And if Edwin chooses to participate in his school's graduation ceremony, Thomas said he plans to be in the audience.
By year's end, Rosann expects the company's student numbers to reach 1,000 and to increase to 2,500 by the end of 2012. By 2016, he projects that 18,000 will tap the Academy's programs.
"As enrollment continues to grow, the Academy's staff will grow," Rosann said. "The company expects to have 150 to 200 employees in the next four years."
At present, the Academy is unable to contract with Utah's school districts.
Some states had laws and policies that were more conducive than others for the Academy's dropout recovery initiative, Rosann said. Now that the program is established in six states, the Academy is working with Utah's office of education to determine what steps are needed to provide the services here.
"Obviously it means a lot to us to be able to do it in our own backyard," Rosann said.
For 16-year-old Shalana Klemann of Southfield, Mich., signing on with NoDropouts has kept her on track when no other options would have worked.
Since eighth grade, Klemann has suffered from social anxiety disorder. Although her "people phobia" keeps her from face-to-face encounters in brick-and-mortar classrooms, her mind continues to search for knowledge.
Thanks to NoDropouts, Klemann is at the 11th-grade level earning a 3.9 GPA and expects to graduate by 2013. She hopes to pursue college courses in the legal or medical field.
"Not many people have seen a case like mine," Klemann said. "Everyone's hoping that my panic attacks will decrease."
In the meantime, Klemann is building success, one online credit at a time.
"It's truly a heaven-sent program," she said.
Education level and average annual income
$19,540 • High school dropout
$27,380 • High school diploma
$36,190 • Associate's degree
$46.930 • Bachelor's degree
Source: U.S. Department of Education