Donna Serrano knew that her daughter Angelique was teetering on the verge. She'd been excited and enthusiastic as a freshman at Abraham Lincoln High in Brooklyn, New York, but by her sophomore year the 16-year-old had disengaged from her studies. Instead of her usual A's and B's, Angelique was now getting C's and D's, and lagging badly behind in math. Something in her attitude had changed too. She started acting disrespectful at home, especially with her mom and 14-year-old brother, Kody. Even worse, Angelique was frequently skipping class, hanging out with other troubled kids, and had been in a physical confrontation with another classmate. "I have two older kids, so I know how teenagers' lives can be a real roller coaster," says Donna. "But it seemed like Angelique was headed nowhere but down."
Donna, 47, a stay-at-home mom, and her husband, Angel, 52, a former food service worker, tried hard to persuade Angelique to crack the books, telling her she needed to finish high school in order to get a decent job. "She's seen how hard her father and I have struggled to raise four children, and I know that she wants a better life for herself," Donna says. Angelique, in fact, did dream of a diploma and a career. Every morning, as she dressed for school, she promised herself she'd get a grip and raise her grades. But somewhere over the course of the day she lost her way. "I felt pulled in two directions, and I didn't know which way to go," she says. "I wanted to graduate, but I wanted to be with my friends more—and I didn't care about the consequences."
Angelique was perilously close to making one of the worst moves a teen can make—giving up on her education and dropping out of high school. Across the country there's an alarming exodus taking place, with 1.2 million kids dropping out every year, or about 7,000 a day. Ultimately, nearly one in three students fail to graduate with their class. The problem affects virtually every community, rural and urban. Nevada, South Carolina, and Arizona, for example, are among the states with the lowest graduation rates in the nation.
Thirty years ago dropouts might have been able to get a blue-collar job that would pay the bills and help support a family. That was then. In today's brutal economy, they are lucky to secure even minimum-wage employment. Just ask Shirley Franklin, until recently mayor of Atlanta, Georgia, where the graduation rate hovers at an appalling 55 percent. "Dropouts are competing with older people with more experience in everything from retail and food service jobs to transportation and light industry," says Franklin, who personally mentors teens in her city. "That's why I'm constantly telling them what they need to hear—that unless they graduate, they're likely to live in poverty."
If dropouts do find work, their pay starts—and stays—low. According to the Department of Commerce, they make about $19,000 a year; over a lifetime, they'll watch as their diploma-wielding peers outearn them by $1 million. Even worse, they're nearly four times as likely to be arrested, and eight times as likely to be incarcerated. "Too many kids drop out and end up in the back of a squad car," says David Kass, president of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a nationwide coalition of sheriffs, police chiefs, prosecutors and victims advocating for better schools to help lower crime rates. "It's a cycle we have to stop."
To do that, some towns are resorting to extreme intervention. In Central Falls, Rhode Island, the school board recommended firing all 74 teachers at Central Falls High, where the graduation rate is 48 percent. The move was supported by President Obama, who recently proposed giving $900 million in federal grants to states and school districts that turn around—or, in some cases, close—the 2,000 institutions across the country that produce more than half of the nation's dropouts. But the solution also starts at home; after all, it's every parent's responsibility to instill in his or her children the value of education. Learn how to give your kids the encouragement they need to keep them in class, so they can graduate to a bright future.