Every 26 Seconds, a Student Drops Out of High School

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Every 26 seconds, a student drops out of high school. Here's what happens when they do.

By Thomas Pearson

“I dropped out in the ninth grade. I went to jail that summer. I was fifteen,” said Charles “Frog” Phillips when we talked on his front porch in the Washington Park neighborhood, on Montgomery’s west side. “I was more concerned with my reputation in the streets and making money than I was with school.”

Phillips, now 30, grew up in various housing projects with a single mother who was addicted to crack cocaine and a younger sister, Crystal, who also dropped out of high school.

He says that while he liked school when he was young—participated in spelling bees and playing football—he didn't feel that he was wanted there.

“Teachers just pass kids on without an education just to get them out of the classroom, so they don't have to deal with them. There’s something wrong with that,” he said.

At age 10, Phillips joined a gang. Gang members provided the sense of family that he was missing and they encouraged him to sell drugs. By the age of 15 he had dropped out and was committed to being a full time gang member.

Though Phillips committed to turning his life around, after four years in prison, and getting shot in the hip when he was 20, he cannot find work, in part because he does not have a high school diploma. He hasn’t had a job in nine months.

“I've learned a lot since I dropped out of high school, one mistake can mess up your whole life,” Phillips says. “When I was a kid, I dreamed of being a detective or a firefighter. Now I dream of showing my kids a better example of what they can be in life, how important it is to graduate from high school.”
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By Sara LaFleur

Red is 20 years old. He was born at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, but grew up all over the East Bay: Oakland, Richmond, and Antioch. He is the middle child, with a younger brother in school and an older brother hustling in the streets, like him.

Red’s mother was incarcerated when he was growing up, but he doesn't know why. His father was out of the picture. He hasn't seen him in years.

Red was raised mostly by his aunt, who made sure he ate and had clothes on his back, but didn't really care if he went to school or not. As a kid, he didn't have any role models or dreams for what he wanted to be when he got older. He dropped out of high school after his freshman year and says it wouldn’t have mattered if he stayed in school or not, because all he needed to make it in the streets was the ability to count his money and read. He says beyond that, the teachers don't really teach anything.

They just go to school to get their paycheck.

Red doesn't regret dropping out. He spends much of his time outside BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) stations throughout the Bay, selling half-price BART tickets, marijuana, pills, and liquor. He dreams of making money as a hip hop artist and wants to put out an album soon.

[See video above]

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By Andre Lambertson

Brandon Thompson grew up on the rough and tumble streets of East New York, raised by a single mother. His father was an alcoholic who died when Thompson was 1.

Thompson’s older brothers ran the streets. One brother has been in prison for 16 years. Most of Thompson’s friends were in gangs.

“In my neighborhood in East New York, in the 90s the early 2000s, there was a group of guys out here, specifically, they were in the newspapers and everything. They partially terrorized the whole of Brooklyn for three or fours years, and, what a coincidence, I lived in the same building with most of them,” he said.

Thompson didn’t care much about school because his teachers seemed apathetic. Children also teased him because he did not have a father. He was suspended several times and when he got to high school moved from one school to another, because he kept getting expelled. Finally, in 2005, he decided to drop out all together.

“I just wasn't that focused on education because I had to focus on making money to keep the family fed, making sure we were good,” he says.