Robert Taylor-Bey was 13 years old the first time he met Deanne Fischer, principal of the Jefferson City Academic Center.
Unfortunately, it was because he was in Jefferson City Public School District's Suspended Student Classroom, better known as "SSC."
"I always got suspended," he remembers. "I had a lot of anger issues."
Until a couple of years ago, Bey was like millions of other teens enrolled in American high schools: belligerent, disrespectful of authority, failing. He relished the way his sagging pants and insolent ball cap silently told his teachers how little he thought of them. Graduation was a mirage meant for other teens, not him. He'd accepted his fate as a future dropout.
In hindsight, Bey's anger is understandable. When he was 6, his father was murdered. For years, his grief at the loss was palpable. At different points in his life, both his mother and his sister have been his guardian. Moving was more constant than staying.
"I bottled it in for a long time," he said.
It wasn't until he had a personal epiphany that his life changed. That epiphany was partly driven by the fear his life was shaping up to be a disaster.
"The life I was leading wasn't going to get me anywhere," he said.
So, he stopped wearing a ball cap to school, because he knew he would forget to take it off. And he pulled up his pants. He stopped skipping school. Most importantly, he buckled down to his studies.Â
But it was too late. His trouble-making reputation was cemented.
"I had built the image as a disrespectful kid," he lamented.
One day, he slipped up and was sent to the office for a tardy. It was infuriating to be treated the way he always had been.
It was about at that time that he caught Fischer's eye.
She realized: "One of the things he needed was for someone to recognize the positives."
She identified him as a possible candidate for JCAC, a school-credit recovery program located in the Miller Performing Arts Center. The program's goal is to prevent at-risk students from dropping out of school and provide them the nurturing environment they need to recover the course credits for graduation.
For Bey, the last two years have been a saving grace.
"I've been able to develop myself as a person. I know my capabilities. I actually look forward to the future," he said.
While his plan - military and college - lies more clearly before him, he still feels trepidation. Whereas school was once a source of strife, now he's worried about leaving JCAC's protective culture.
"I'm more stressed about leaving school," he admitted.
But Fischer has faith Bey can do it. In the last two years, the two have forged a relationship of trust.
"I know he'll do the right thing, even when I'm not here. He deserved to be respected," she said. "He's overcome so much."
Other students in the school have experienced the same motivational turnaround Bey experienced.
A supportive atmosphere at JCAC
Henry Rodriquez, 18, is also slated to be a graduating senior from JCAC this spring. But at one point in his school career, he had been suspended out of school for so long, and had missed so many days, he was effectively a dropout.
Rodriquez was the kind of student who slept his way through every class.
"At the high school, I just felt like one in a million ... another kid in a hat. Nobody recognized me," he said.
He developed a reputation as a "bad kid," he said. Soon, he was living up to others' negative expectations.
"It just kind of made me lose faith in myself," he said.
When he was a ninth-grader, both his parents lost their jobs. It made school seem less important and finding work more so.
Like Bey, Rodriquez was identified as a candidate for JCAC. When he arrived Oct. 18, he felt like he'd been given a second chance.
"My first day there, I walked in and they all knew my name. It was amazing, honestly," he said.
Fischer said all of her kids "have great stories and have accomplished so much."
"The kids are the ones who do the changing. It takes the student to make changes to be academically successful," she said.
Rodriquez and Bey are success stories. But not all of Jefferson City's teenagers receive their diplomas.
How does JC rates compare with state?
According to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the graduation rate for the Jefferson City Public School district was 84.1 percent, as measured in 2012.
The JCPS dropout rate was 3.2 percent in 2012 and 3.9 percent in 2011 - slightly higher than the state averages of 3.1 percent in 2012 and 3.2 percent in 2011.
Because the dropout rate is calculated annually, one must multiply those rates by four to gain a rough idea of what percentage of kids in each class are not earning diplomas.
DESE calculates the "graduation rate" for the state's 523 school districts.
Jefferson City saw an improvement in the four-year graduation rate between 2011 and 2012, when the rate rose from 79.4 percent to 84.1 percent. But those numbers are still slightly under the state average for Missouri, when graduation rates rose from 81.4 percent for 2011 to 86.09 percent for 2012.
Tom Ogle, director of school data for the Department of Secondary and Elementary Education, said many people incorrectly assume they can just add the dropout rate to the graduation rate to get 100 percent.
Not so, he said.
"The dropout rate is calculated annually, but the graduation rate is calculated cumulatively," he explained.
As defined by the state, a "dropout" is a student who is no longer enrolled in public school and who has not transferred to another educational situation, such as a home, private or online schooling setting.
Students who fail to report back to school at the end of the summer are considered dropouts. (Students who stop attending in the middle of the school year and return are considered "stop outs.")
All around the state, administrators scramble fairly aggressively to determine where a student lands when he or she leaves. Because if they can find confirmation he or she is enrolled elsewhere - even if it's only for one hour of one day in the new district - they are not counted as a dropout on the previous school's books.
The dropout rate is measured as the number of ninth- through 12th-grade students who drop out during the year, divided by the average enrollment for the year.Â
"There's a little imprecision with dropouts, because students can always return to school," Ogle said. "There was a lady in Kansas who returned when she was in her 80s."
There are a few anomalies that don't fit the state's calculations and the school has little control over - such as students who drop out to attend college or who are incarcerated - but those scenarios are rare.
Missouri's data now comparable with nation's
Until recently, dropout rates were the major way for the state to report data. And because they are calculated every year, they have the advantage of relaying information more immediately than other statistics, Ogle said.
"So changes in an instructional program or a state regulation ... the impact of those changes would be noticeable in the dropout rate within a year, as opposed to the graduation rate which is a longer-term measure," he explained.
However, graduation rates now play a bigger role in holding schools accountable. To participate in a federal program, the state of Missouri agreed to calculate graduation rates similarly to other states.
All states now report graduation data using a specific calculation, which allows rates to be uniformly compared across the nation. Momentum for all the states to produce a comparable four-year graduation rate began in 2005 with the leadership of the National Governors' Association.
Today, graduation rates look at a cohort of students - say a group of students entering the ninth grade, for example - and adjust the "picture" when students transfer into and out of the cohort.Â
For the Missouri School Improvement Program, the state will calculate a four-year graduation rate for students who entered the ninth grade in 2009 and graduated in 2013. The state is also calculating five-year and six-year graduation rates.
"Because some kids are delayed in credits," Ogle explained.
In Missouri, Ogle said, more students are earning diplomas than before. He believes that is partly due to the nation's troubled economy, which presents teenagers with fewer job opportunities. He noted, historically, the lowest dropout rates were recorded during the Vietnam War era.
He also said rural schools have less of a problem keeping students in school than urban schools do. Females also are earning their diplomas at a higher rate than males, he said. Last year at Jefferson City High School, almost 88 percent of females earned diplomas, compared with 80.5 percent of males.
While Jefferson City rates might be slightly lagging behind the state average, it's not by much.
"Jefferson City mirrors the state, and the state mirrors the national results," Ogle said.