updated 8/26/2006 10:48:54 PM ET 2006-08-27T02:48:54

Andres Torres, 18, is working to support his infant twin girls. Claudia Zavala, 15, gave birth on Friday. Diocelina Garcia, 18, is seven months pregnant.

All were high school dropouts when the sun rose Saturday. By noon, each had registered to go back to school. What made the difference was a visit from someone who cares that they return to the classroom.

“If the kids aren’t going to come to us, we’re going to come to them,” said Roberta Cusack, the Houston school district’s director of student engagement.

Houston is the largest district in the nation to take such a personal approach to encourage dropouts to resume their education.

Since starting the program two years ago, Houston volunteers and school officials have “recovered” about 800 dropouts in a district of roughly 250,000 students. In May, 250 of those ex-dropouts graduated, school officials said.

‘You knock on doors’
School officials in Dallas and South Carolina have shown interest in adopting the program for their districts.

“It’s just common sense, so it’s caught on,” said Houston Mayor Bill White, one of the volunteers who went door to door in the predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhood of Sharpstown. “If something is not important, you write a letter. If something is important, you knock on doors.”

On Saturday, 1,400 volunteers visited 1,251 homes and enrolled or got commitments from 596 students, said Terry Abbott, spokesman for Houston’s school district.

Garcia, who was asleep when White and Superintendent Abe Saavedra came to her door, didn’t think she could handle a heavy academic load while she was pregnant. She learned Saturday that she can take fewer classes and schedule shorter days. After giving birth, she can leave her child at a day care center that works with her high school.

Meeting people who had come specifically to talk to her gave her the support she needed to re-enroll, Garcia said.

“That way, I can give my child a better future,” she said in Spanish through a translator.

Encouragement goes a long way
District officials recognize that circumstances outside the school, such as having a child or needing to hold a job, often cause a student to drop out and not return.

“Those obstacles are where we can help them,” Cusack said. “When we bring them back to school, we have to make sure the school will meet their needs — meaningful curriculum, small learning community, personalization. Those things are huge.”

One of Saturday’s volunteers, Luz Melgar, knows that encouragement goes a long way for at-risk students. In her native El Salvador, Melgar dropped out of high school for a year because of family problems and a lack of support. Her mother, who was working in the United States at the time, persuaded her to return to the classroom.

“She told me that she always had a big expectation for me, and that made me feel bad,” said Melgar, a manager of the stationery department at a local Wal-Mart.

Now, Melgar has the same expectation for her four children.

“For me,” she said, “education is the best thing you can do.”

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