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FRONTLINE | Dropout Nation

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Watch Thursday, September 25, 2014 at 7pm on WORLD

What does it take to save a student?

Every year, hundreds of thousands of American kids quit high school before they earn their diplomas. It’s an epidemic so out of control that nobody knows the exact number of students involved. What is clear is that massive dropout rates are crippling individual career prospects and clouding the country’s future.

At Sharpstown High School in Houston, Texas, a high-stakes experiment is under way to rescue students from the edge and turn around one of the city’s worst performing schools. FRONTLINE spent a semester inside this once notorious “dropout factory” to produce Dropout Nation, an intimate portrait of students in crisis and the teachers, counselors and principal waging a daily struggle to guide them to graduation day.

The film takes an unflinching look at the efforts of four students—Marcus, Lawrence, Sparkle and Marco—to stay in school. For each student, staying on campus requires grappling with distressing and complicated issues in their lives off campus: substance abuse, parents with criminal and immigration problems, homelessness.

“We just have kids that deal with so much more than what a typical 16- or 17-year-old should be dealing with,” explains Brandi Brevard, campus improvement coordinator at Sharpstown. “Seventy percent of the time, more of the issues that we deal with on a daily basis have to do with things outside of academics and instruction.”

Marcus teeters between the lure of life on the streets and his passion for playing high school football, which he says is the only thing keeping him in school. Lawrence, a transplant from California whose mother is in and out of prison, often can’t control his temper and lashes out at those around him. Sparkle, who has a baby and is often without a place to sleep at night, is at school so rarely that it’s almost impossible for her to keep up. And Marco, whose father was deported to Mexico and whose mother lives under the same threat, works a full-time job late into the night to help support his family.

Sharpstown staff members like Brevard, principal Rob Gasparello, and dean of instruction Rana Boone, develop relationships with and offer support for each student.

The backdrop of their efforts is the school’s participation in the Houston Independent School District’s “Apollo 20” program. The program, created in partnership with Harvard University’s Education Innovation Laboratory, emphasizes high expectations for students, data-driven instruction, and intensive, high-quality teaching, tutoring and administration.

“It’s an experiment that everyone in public education really should be watching, because at some point, as a public we want to turn around the worst of our schools, says Bob Sanborn, president of the Houston-based Children At Risk. “We now have the formula, but we’re going to have to come up with the dollars.”

Both troubling and inspiring, Dropout Nation investigates the causes and challenges of a national emergency, and the potential solutions for it.