Ray's teachers had picked him to speak. "I found this program — no, this school — to be just what I needed," he said. "I cannot explain what drove me to work so arduously, but what I do know is that I'm thankful to be here today."
"I never have a kid who makes a decision to drop out," said Gladstone, the longtime principal at Independence. "They just drift away."
Once they do, the evidence is overwhelming that their prospects for a good life — by practically any definition — decline.
There was a time, not so long ago, when it was possible for a dropout to get a job that could eventually lift him into the middle class. Those days are pretty much over. In 1964, a typical high school dropout earned 64 cents for every dollar earned by someone with a diploma. By 2004, it was 37 cents and dropping.
At a conference last fall at Columbia University's Teachers College in New York, some top educational researchers released their findings about the consequences of dropping out.
The researchers calculated that dropouts will cost the country hundreds of billions of dollars a year in lost income taxes and increased welfare and healthcare costs.
Dropouts will die, on average, nine years earlier than high school graduates.
Dropouts will commit far more crimes than high school graduates.
Economist Enrico Moretti of UC Berkeley estimated that if high school graduation rates were just 1% higher, there would be 100,000 fewer crimes in the United States annually, including 400 fewer murders, and that the savings would be $1.4 billion a year.
In an economy that increasingly relies on educated workers, "those who are not properly educated are going to fall by the wayside," said Michael Rebell, director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College.
It is a fate that Svetlana Pogosyan is desperately trying to avoid.
Svetlana dropped out of Birmingham in her junior year. By then, school had become a cycle of failure and humiliation. Svetlana, a Russian immigrant, was growing awkwardly out of a difficult childhood. At school, she was unfashionable and unpopular and proud of it.
"High school was so overrated," Svetlana said. "It was a fashion show, that's it."
She had started skipping class in her freshman year, visiting a hookah bar and smoking apple-flavored tobacco with her one close friend. Her parents worked long hours, her mother as an X-ray technician, her father as a floor-layer. Teachers didn't encourage her.
She checked out that first year, trying a continuation school and home study, before returning to Birmingham. But she found that little had changed. If anything, the social scene had intensified. After one semester, she left and re-enrolled in home study.
Then, in what would have been her senior year, her father was diagnosed with lung cancer. She began taking care of him and her 4-year-old brother while her mother worked.
Finishing school became a distant worry.
Last June, her little brother graduated from preschool and proudly waved his diploma in his big sister's face. A month later, Svetlana was called to her father's bedside. She kissed his swollen forehead five times. He called her his "bunny" in Russian. Then he died.