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Thursday, January 5, 2012 - 11:40am

A Factory That Keeps Kids In School

On a normal day, this electrical wire manufacturing plant in Carrollton is abuzz. Machines roll insulated wire off gigantic spools, slice it into 50 yard lengths, and seal it in plastic. It seems like a typical factory, until you notice that all of the employees seem…very young.

There’s Ally Mellos, who’s 17 years old. Bianca Stevens is 19. Clayton Croy is 17.

All of the workers here are high school students – and they all nearly dropped out. This is 12 For Life, a unique partnership between the Carroll County public school system and Southwire, one of the country’s largest producers of electrical wire. Southwire opened a plant – fully functional but customized for the safety of teenagers – where about 150 students work as they finish school.

Debbie Jordan, a veteran plant supervisor who’s now one of a handful of adults on the factory floor, says she prefers working with high school kids.

“Grown people sometimes act like students!” Jordan says. “And I think some of the time the students are more mature than grown-ups.”

These are kids who’ve often matured on this job. 12 For Life looks for the kids on the margins – students with poor attendance records and those who are very far behind on their credits. Many need jobs to help support their families.

Twenty-one-year-old Michael McCormick is in many ways a typical student. He stopped going to school in tenth grade, when he got a job to support his newborn son.

“If it wasn’t for this, I don’t really know where I would be,” he says. “This is the only reason I came back to school in the first place.”

Students working here earn 8 dollars an hour, more than they could make at other part-time jobs in the area. If they have perfect attendance -- which 60 percent of them did last year -- they earn a 50 cent raise. Another raise comes if their supervisors commend them for their work ethic.

“You learn how to control your anger, cause you’re going to get mad sometimes – stuff happens while you’re here,” McCormick says. “And you learn how to work on a team, and you learn how to communicate with other people.”

And here’s another way that McCormick is typical of the student employees of 12 For Life: “I’m actually going to start college in January now,” he says. “And I never even had plans for graduating high school, so I think if I have plans for college, it changes a lot.”

About 40 percent of 12 For Life’s graduates head to college. Others head to jobs at one of Southwire’s main plants, where they’re first in line for openings.

Carroll County’s school superintendent, Scott Cowart, loves the program. Since it started five years ago, the district’s graduation rate is up 10 percentage points. And for the county’s poorest students – the ones 12 For Life seeks out – the benefits have been greater. In 2006, 55 percent of them graduated on time. Now, 77 percent do.

“This program gives them a place to come and be a part of something bigger than themselves,” Cowart says. “And that tie keeps them – when there’s a low point or something’s going wrong in their family life or away from school – that’s a connecting point to get them back into the program and not let them slide away.”

And Southwire executives say it’s a win for them too.

Mike Wiggins, a Southwire vice president, says the fact that it’s a real, productive plant is key – rather than adding costs, the program pays for itself. Opening the plant was a significant investment, because it had to be modified to fit the safety needs of teenagers. But that’s paid off too.

“Cool thing there is, some of the modifications we made to accommodate kids are now incorporated into that equipment all over,” Wiggins says. “So it continues to be just win win win win win.”

A win so big, in fact, that Southwire is beginning to replicate the program. The company opened a smaller version in Alabama, and two similar programs are starting elsewhere in Georgia. And earlier this year, Southwire executives were invited to present their model to White House staff.