• To some people, the opportunity for a second chance is an inherited part of the American dream. Our figurative social-timelines are littered with little gems that are magnified in hindsight: If I could do it all over again ... . Fortunately, St. Louis Public Schools provides a second chance for high school dropouts with its Fresh Start Academy. The program allows youth in St. Louis to earn actual high school diplomas as opposed to GED certificates.

    The Fresh Start Academy is a part of the Missouri Options Program, which is present in more than 200 school districts across the state. Fresh Start graduates an average of 125 students each spring at its commencement ceremony held on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis.

    Specifically targeting high school dropouts between the ages of 17 and 21, who are at least one year behind in their studies, Fresh Start provides the necessary accommodations that increase the likelihood of success.

    The accelerated, individualized instruction students receive is at the foundation of the program’s success. The academy offers a unique format that allows students to choose between morning and afternoon sessions, lasting just three hours a day. Free lunches as well as free bus tickets are provided. With an emphasis on post-secondary success, students are encouraged and guided to pursue internships, work part-time jobs, network with community leaders, and find best-fit higher education options. Additionally, dual enrollment is available at Ranken Tech, Forest Park and Florissant Valley Community College for eligible students.

    In recent years, on both the national and state levels, high school dropout rates have gradually declined. In 2011 the dropout rate for St. Louis city was 19.6 percent. Three years later, that number dropped to 12.1 percent. In comparison, the national dropout rate is 7 percent, down from 12 percent in 2000. These figures are based on annual reports from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

    Our work is far from finished despite the fact that progress has been made. One dropout is one too many. Research data estimate that high school dropouts are three and a half times more likely to be arrested and eight times more likely to be incarcerated than high school graduates.

    It’s no secret that our community has recently faced trying times. According to 2015 St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department data, approximately 57 percent of homicide victims were between the ages of 20 and 29. Ninety-four percent of these tragedies involved firearms. History has illustrated a strong correlation of violent crimes and incarceration to high school dropout rates. This is no coincidence.

    Unfortunately, much of the city’s unrest has concerned youth. An idle mind and idle time are never a good combination. In life, there are many things we take for granted; education should never be one of them.

    The implications of a lack of education are a vicious cycle. Fifty-nine percent of federal inmates are high school dropouts. Moreover, the average high school dropout makes $1 million less in their lifetime than their high school graduate counterpart. Again, this, too, is no coincidence.

    Albeit there are students who drop out of school because of academic challenges, the majority of dropouts believe they can succeed in school; however, a varying degree of personal challenges prove to be too great. There must be an aggressive and adequate response from educational leaders that adapts to the challenges today’s students encounter.

    SLPS leaders have recognized the issues our students face. The arrival of the Fresh Start Academy was a direct response to the silent epidemic of high school dropouts in St. Louis.

    When a student drops out of school, it has adverse effects on public safety, the economy, and our society as a whole; the future and success of St. Louis students affects all St. Louisans.

    An educated society is a prosperous society. Consider this a challenge to parents, grandparents, guardians, community leaders, clergy and city officials. It takes support from every angle to create a powerful impact. We must make quality of life a priority for St. Louis teenagers. Many of life’s major rewards and consequences are directly influenced by education.

    The objective of Fresh Start is to develop educated citizens who add value to society. Equipping students with a diploma, support and a second chance rejuvenate their belief in attaining the American dream. It is incumbent upon us to produce a skilled and educated workforce. Make your mark. Encourage someone you might know to complete their high school diploma today.

    Janice S. Hazley is interim program director at Fresh Start Academy (314-531-2220).