CHARLESTON, S.C. - If she had stayed at St. Johns High School, Takara Perry says, she would simply have dropped out.
"I had thought about it. I was making C's and D's and just scraping by," she said. "There were a lot of students in each class and a lot of distractions."
Now the 17-year-old is a senior on the A-B honor roll at Septima Clark Corporate Academy, a school created to help children at risk of dropping out complete earn their diplomas. She hopes to pursue a nursing degree at Clemson, something she never dreamed of two years ago.
The stories of Takara and the academy are bright spots in what seems an intractable problem in South Carolina -- low high school graduation rates.
In about 1,700 high schools nationwide no more than 60 percent of the students who start as freshmen make it to their senior year, according to an analysis of Education Department data conducted by Johns Hopkins University for The Associated Press.
Bob Balfanz, a researcher at the Baltimore university, calls such schools "dropout factories."
They include almost 52 percent of the 185 high schools in South Carolina, the highest ratio in the nation, according to the study. Dr. Balfanz says that while some of the students transferred before they graduated, most dropped out.
South Carolina's dubious distinction can be explained in part because it is one of about 25 states requiring an exit exam, said Jim Foster, spokesman for the state Education Department.
Such states tend to have lower on-time graduation rates. South Carolina is also one of only six states requiring 24 credit hours for graduation; most require 12 to 14, hours, he said.
"But we're not going to argue whether our graduation rate is 55 percent or 58 or 62," he said. "It's way too low, and it's been low for generations."
The state estimates that about 6,000 of the estimated 700,000 students in public schools leave school each year, never to complete their education. Officials believe part of the reason is cultural. In generations past, there were a lot of good-paying jobs even without a high school diploma.
The South Carolina Policy Council, a conservative think tank, recently released a study estimating that one year's class of dropouts costs the state $5 billion over a half century. Those costs come in less money paid in taxes and more for prisons and health insurance.
At Clark Academy, established almost 20 years ago, there are only 120 students and a student-teacher ratio of 15-1. That's about half the average in other Charleston County Schools, said school director Kevin McClelland.
The students must apply and show they are willing to work in a new environment where they can get more individual attention and make up for lost time.
"Some of the students who apply are 16 or 17 and realized they need to do something different. These kids are bright; they just have gaps in their education," he said.