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CHICAGO (Reuters) - Jesus Garcia dropped out of high school and figured he was destined for prison or a life shortened by violence -- until he found an alternative school that became the family he never felt he had.
"Without this school, kids would be dealing drugs, dying, gang-banging, all of it. Without this school there would be no leaders, no mentors," Garcia, an aspiring chef, told a group of former dropouts who have re-enrolled in alternative schools.
Some 30 percent of Americans drop out before finishing high school. They are more likely to be unemployed, receive public assistance, commit crimes and go to jail than those who graduate. They also are less healthy and have a lower life expectancy, according to research presented at a Columbia University conference.
Dropping out "is no longer an option," President Barack Obama told Congress earlier this year.
The national dropout rate has been rather stable for decades. It is 50 percent or higher at hundreds of mostly urban schools that have been dubbed "dropout factories" by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development ranked the United States 19th among member nations in high school graduation rates, and weak U.S. public schools are now widely viewed as an impediment to economic success.
The U.S. graduation rate was a few percentage points below the OECD average. Germany ranked first and seven other nations including South Korea, Israel, Finland, and Japan graduated at least nine out of 10 students.
Companies like AT&T and groups such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Colin Powell's America's Promise Alliance have analyzed the problem and are funding programs believed to reinvigorate public schools.
A few businesses have attacked the problem by building or staffing schools themselves.
"There's an awareness in the business community that it needs a higher skill level for its employees, and we won't get there with the dropout rate," said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education think tank.
Identifying the scope of the problem has been an issue, as schools have found ways not to call a departed student a dropout and greatly exaggerated graduation rates, experts say.
A recent study estimated 1.2 million American high school students drop out of school each year, with more than half of 16- to 24-year-old dropouts facing joblessness as low-skill jobs disappear. Those that do find jobs earn far less than their graduating peers.
Among black dropouts aged 16 to 24, unemployment soars to 69 percent, and 23 percent of black dropouts are incarcerated.
The alternative school program in Illinois and school systems throughout the nation are seeking grants from the Department of Education's $4 billion "Race to the Top" program that aims to improve schools.
Part of the federal economic stimulus package, the funding represents less than 1 percent of the $500 billion spent yearly on public schools that is paid for primarily with local taxes.
For some youngsters, alternative schools are their last chance. Thousands of the small schools have been established in recent decades for poorly-performing students. They offer non-traditional curricula, student-teacher ratios of around 10-to-1 rather than 30- or 40-1 in regular schools, and after-school and summer programs and jobs.
Garcia said the students and teachers formed a support group his family did not give him and the school also provided day care for his child.
"Lots of kids have no family support. The school gives you that support. There's a sense of belonging," he said.
Education experts say it is important not to give up on dropouts. They cite a Gates Foundation survey that found three-quarters of dropouts do so because they were "bored."
Becoming a dropout wasn't an option for Dwight Eason.
"I was hanging with the wrong people. I started smoking marijuana when I was 15. I got into a program to quit, got counseling, and just when I re-enrolled I learned I had twins and another on the way. It was time to get serious," he said.
Eason, 17, said he is getting excellent grades at an alternative school and will graduate next year.
Street violence, which has claimed the lives of 12 Chicago public school students since September, has some students afraid of going to school.
"It's possible that violence contributes in some ways to school failure, but there are a lot of other things going on in the background as well," said University of Chicago sociologist Jens Ludwig.
Editing by Alan Elsner