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James Hanks didn't graduate from Birmingham's Woodlawn High School last year.
"I wanted to play around, be in the band, play sports and everything else instead of doing my work," he says. He even managed to land a job he loves, driving cranes and forklifts at the local steel plant.
Then he ran into trouble. First, Hanks' father — also a high school dropout — lost his job as a cook.
"A couple months I had to pay all the bills, the lights, gas, rent, everything," says Hanks, his voice catching. "I can really see that ... that it's hard out there. I didn't want to see [my father] like that, and I didn't want to see myself in the future like that."
Then the steel plant heard Hanks wouldn't be graduating. You need a diploma, he was told, to keep your job.
According to data released by the U.S. Department of Education, Alabama has experienced one of the nation's steepest increases in high school graduation rates, though the 8 point rise between 2010 and 2013 still leaves the state one point below the national average.
State superintendent Tommy Bice attributes the rise to three strategies: setting the target of a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020 (the state is actually ahead of pace toward that goal); more precise identification and monitoring of students with academic and attendance problems through the state's new data system; and what Bice calls "a new level of flexibility that's led to locally tailored programs."
Bice says the state legislature, school board, and education department have made it easier for high schools to offer classes, say, from 4 to 8 p.m. for students with jobs: "We've let [local administrators] know, 'You can do this — there's nothing that says school has to be between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m.' "
Increased flexibility worked for James Hanks, who signed up for Birmingham's Dropout Recovery Program. At the district's three Alternative Learning Centers, students spend 80 percent of their time working on computers, with teachers giving face-to-face instruction the rest of the time. Hanks says he never missed a day at his preferred center, housed in a local church. And he could attend classes in the morning while working his evening shift at the steel plant. Local school leaders say this program has graduated roughly 700 at-risk students since it started five years ago.
Program coordinator Ezra Shine was invited to be part of a dropout-prevention panel at a U.S. Department of Education "Brother's Keeper" meeting in May. He runs the district's prevention programs, which also include counseling, peer mentoring and tutoring, and Saturday school. When asked whether these programs provide students with a less rigorous shortcut to graduation, he bristles.
"The classes are rigorous," he says. "It just amazes me to see educators, as well as people in general, try to downplay students' educational progress ... Students that have graduated from our program have joined the military. There are students at some of our local junior colleges as well as some of our universities. They're still in school. [Critics] have to remember that a traditional program is not a fit for everybody ... It's just that we basically want school to be like it was when I was in school, in the 80s. But we're evolving."
Without the program, Hanks says, he'd likely be "sitting at home doing nothing, or in the streets getting into trouble. I have a couple friends that could have [joined], but they took another path that led them to prison or death. I wish they could have taken this road, too."
James Hanks is set to graduate this spring.
For more on James Hanks and dropout recovery in Alabama, go here.