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(Michael Thomas, left, local advocate in Tampa, Fla., works with students in the American Academy's No Dropouts program. Courtesy photo)
Utah academy’s business is helping high school dropouts drop back in

Firm’s online learning model is benefitting students in six states.

First Published Dec 17 2011 01:01 am • Last Updated Dec 19 2011 10:02 am

The United States has roughly 35 million high school dropouts, a staggering number that continues to increase each day for any number of reasons.

But on the 11th floor of Salt Lake City’s Walker Center, employees in an innovative business venture reach out to mentor and educate this fractured population through online learning and the use of technology to keep in touch.

At a glance

Education level and average annual income

$19,540 » High school dropout

$27,380 » High school diploma

$36,190 » Associate’s degree

$46.930 » Bachelor’s degree

Source: U.S. Department of Education

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"Most [dropouts] are extremely bright and extremely capable. But there was some drastic event in their life that caused them not to be able to attend school," said Jeff Beck, director of technology and media for The American Academy.

Whether detoured by a surprise pregnancy, social anxiety, legal trouble, financial woes, getting bullied or an illness — either their own or that of a family member — these lost students make up the target market for the Academy’s NoDropouts program.

The company also runs a private online high school, certified by the Northwest Accreditation Commission, which includes students from nearly every state in the nation — many of them too old to attend a public high school. But by far the biggest part of the business, and its recent growth, is the NoDropouts program, which seeks to serve the 5 million to 6 million high school-age youths who are not enrolled in school.

"Once they reach an age where they can’t attend school anymore, they become part of that 35 million," said Gregg Rosann, the Academy’s co-founder and president. "So we try to move upstream and see if we can stem the tide much earlier in the process."

To date, the Academy has graduated close to 60 students from its online high school, and 25 teens have earned diplomas through its dropout recovery program. About 600 kids signed up for NoDropouts in the past six months, Rosann added. Many need to finish 10 to 15 credits, he said, which is the equivalent of two to three years in a traditional school setting.

Within its 3,500 square feet of office space in downtown Salt Lake City, the Academy employs 18 people. Some serve as recruiters or online mentors and sit in cubicles papered with Post-it notes bearing student names. Others are stationed near stacks of laptop computers that are being prepared to ship to recent recruits.

The laptops are provided by through a partnership with Verizon Wireless and are offered to students for free in exchange for the privately held Academy paying for the students’ monthly wireless service. Where school district policies allow, students get to keep the computers, valued at $250 to $300.

For some students, Internet access can be counterproductive, and the Academy blocks certain sites and also adjusts Internet access based on progress.

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"If they’re falling behind, we throttle back what they can access," Rosann said. "We let them back on Facebook when they finish a defined number of assignments."

Such issues as partnerships and computer policies represent growth that belies the Academy’s humble beginnings.

"We started in 2007," Rosann said. "I was the first employee to come onboard."

Rebekah Richards, who serves as the Academy’s chief academic officer, joined the startup when it consisted of "me and a card table," Rosann said. Shortly thereafter, Beck signed on.

From the start, the Academy’s online curriculum was designed to give students the flexibility they needed in their day-to-day scheduling. As it expanded to include the NoDropouts program, a caring support network was established to help keep them on track.

"We were finding our way," Rosann said. By 2009, the Academy began partnering with school districts "to help the 5 to 6 million kids not in school who should be."

Today, the venture contracts with 41 districts in six states: Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon and Washington (although not in Utah, but more about that later). In those locations, 40 local advocates have been hired to conduct weekly meetings with students and provide assistance, including connecting them with social services that can help them deal with some of life’s roadblocks. Pay ranges for advocates weren’t revealed, but many have second jobs.

School districts pay no upfront costs for the program and bear no financial risk, Rosann said of the Academy’s creative pay-per-performance model.

"The district recovers funds that are available to educate the child when the child re-enrolls in the district," Rosann said. "They pay us a portion of that funding based on the student’s performance."

Currently, the Academy has no direct competitors, Rosann said, because most virtual education companies have positioned themselves as rivals to school districts and offer cyber support for homeschooling.

"NoDropouts does the opposite," Rosann said, by partnering with districts to bring their students back and furnishing the flexibility and support needed to overcome the obstacles causing the dropout dilemma.

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