At its top levels, the American system of higher education may be the best in the world. Yet, in terms of its core mission - turning teenagers into educated college graduates - much of the system is simply failing. In fact, fewer than one in four students who attend college will receive their degree, often because they are unprepared to handle the work or face financial difficulties. It's a growing problem that one public charter high school in Washington, D.C. is attempting to tackle, one high school graduate at a time, reports CBS News anchor Katie Couric.
Over the last five years, Thurgood Marshall Academy, a charter high school in one of Washington D.C.'s toughest neighborhoods, has consistently sent 100 percent of its seniors to college - many of them on full scholarships.
Josh Kern, who started the school 10 years ago, says from the beginning, students and teachers have their work cut out for them.
"Typically, a student coming from a middle school is three or four years behind in basic skills in reading and math," Kern said.
The school takes a tough love approach - a 10-hour day and some weekends, that makes kids focus on academics and stay out of trouble.
"You see a lot of kids out here locked up, dead, neighborhood violence, drugs," said one student named De'Sean Suarez. "None of that stuff outside goes on in here. You're just in a totally different place."
But getting students into college is not enough. The goal is to get them to stay there and graduate.
The students are nervous about going to college.
"I'm just anxious to see the work load," De'Sean said. "I want to know if it's going to be a lot or a little bit. No matter what I'm going to do the work, though."
Drew Johnson worries about his mom who has M.S. and doesn't know who is going to care for her.
Emma Levine is Thurgood's full-time alumni coordinator. Her job is to keep tabs on these kids for four more years.
"Sometimes I think they are very close to giving up," Levine said. "The responsibility of myself and everyone in the building who has been part of their lives is to write back, to send them cards, to go visit them and keep that contact going."
"We actually have something called an emergency fund so throughout the course of any given year, we'll give out 20 or 30 small grants to our kids who need textbooks or need food money or need to pay the rent," Kern said. "And those little things are the difference for many of our kids between staying in college and dropping out."
Justin Williams, graduating from Morehouse College in Atlanta, wondered if this day would ever come.
"I was just hoping that somebody would clap for me," Williams said of his graduation. "But I heard them in the back, so I was happy."
As a sophomore he came close to dropping out, but with financial help and encouragement from his high school alma mater, he received his BA in psychology.
"Yo, mom, I graduated, mom," Williams said, crying. "I didn't think I could do it."
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