The first of two special reports on the worldwide problem of children who drop out
At Boyce Campus Middle College high school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the teaching staff select new teachers - and the basis for selection is interpersonal skills. Not that academic matters aren't important, but the aims of the school place equal stress on the improvement of pupils' academic performance and their self-image.
"These kids are square pegs, very creative, of average or above average ability and at risk of falling through the cracks," explains George Cooke, one of four superintendents to oversee the school in what is a unique collaboration between four neighbouring school districts.
Each of the 170 10th to 12th-graders is socially alienated and disaffected with their previous schools and all will have a track record of high absenteeism or "truancy of the mind" (total withdrawal). What Boyce Campus offers them is an opportunity to start afresh. Teachers develop close relationships with them which they will not have had at their mainstream schools and demonstrate to them, in their daily interactions, that they care.
Once a day, there is what's called a focus group, where students share problems with a member of staff. Teachers also pledge a commitment to solve all problems rather than refer them to the principal or ignoring them. In addition, in their final year students are required to do a minimum of 100 hours' community service.
Boyce Campus is one of about 20 "middle college high schools" set in the grounds of a community college. The reason for the location is simple: the facilities at community colleges are appropriate to high school needs and the community college students themselves are generally mature, which means that the middle college students - often unconventional in their appearance - are spared harassment.
Another advantage is a widened curriculum. "Our teachers are teaching things that would only be taught in accelerated learning programmes for high achievers in mainstream high schools," explains Mr Cooke.
"We're offering them Kafka and Sartre in 10th grade." And beyond that, students are able to take community college courses in addition to their high school courses, and get credits for them towards university, as long as they take a test to show that they're up to it. The community college courses they take are paid for by the school districts.
An evaluation of Boyce Campus Middle College high school is currently under way. Preliminary findings show "marked improvements" both in grades and in social adjustment outside of school.
In the faculty and administrator's view, the family atmosphere of the school and the sense of caring, creativity and responsibility that it conveys puts it "on the cutting edge of innovation in secondary education".