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Lessons from a successful ‘dropout recruiter’

BY Elizabeth Jones  April 17, 2014 at 11:47 AM EST

This video was produced by PBS affiliate Nine Network in St. Louis as part of the American Graduate project.

His future, or his son’s. That was how 20-year old Cortez Wilkins saw his choices once he became a teenage parent.  So this high school student from St. Louis decided to sacrifice one for the other and dropped out.

“I loved school. I love basketball and loved playing, but I felt like when I had a baby, I just had to get out of school, find a job and support my son,” said Wilkins.

Another young man, Malik Avery, left school at 18 after he says he was bullied to the point of contemplating suicide.

“I didn’t think he would see his 12th birthday,” much less his 18th, said LaTricia Avery, Malik’s mother.

While these two African-American men have very different reasons for dropping out, the fact they left school before graduating is almost as common as not. According to the 2012 Urgency of Now: The Schott 50 State Report on Public Education and Black Males, the national graduation rate for black male students is 52 percent, compared to 78 percent for white male students.

Dropping out can translate into reduced hope of earning a diploma, but thanks to a graduation proponent known as the “Dropout Recruiter,” both young men succeeded in obtaining their high school degrees.

“They call me the tracker,” said Charlie Bean of St. Louis Public Schools. “I track kids down and get them back in school.”

“I was to the point where I just gave up on everything. I basically thought I wasn’t going to achieve nothing in life until Mr. Bean” came along, Wilkins said.

“My goal is to get the kids who are on the streets back in school,” Bean said. “But I don’t force.  They have to be that leader and what I do is break out the real person inside of them.”

With help from the Check and Connect Program funded by a Department of Education graduation initiative grant awarded in 2010, Bean has helped over 80 former dropouts to graduate.

Bean says he’s successful because he connects with dropouts as someone who can be trusted and doesn’t judge. He says he has faith in his former students and challenges them to be the best versions of themselves.

“When you graduate from high school, that’s a big deal to a lot of black people,” said Wilkins. ”That’s why I really, really love this guy.”

“I didn’t think I was going to do it,” said Avery about his graduation. “It was a wonderful moment for me.”

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This story and PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.