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Willie Thornton is on a rescue mission. One morning in March he set out to save Desmond Dunklin, a 19-year-old who should have graduated last year from Greenville High School in Greenville, Alabama.

Thornton, 48, the school’s dropout prevention coordinator, and Lt. Malcolm Owens, the school’s police officer, drive the five minutes to Dunklin’s house.

“I need for you to show up,” Thornton tells a sleepy Dunklin, who clearly has just been awakened by the men’s repeated knocking on his door.

Dunklin hadn’t been attending school regularly, despite six or seven home visits from Thornton.

Thornton has been teaching for 16 years, but this is his first year running the dropout prevention program. It is his job to mentor, encourage, counsel and cajole 70 students considered at-risk for dropping out. His school in rural Butler County claims a 75 percent graduation rate, but a number of those kids don’t get out within four years. The Southern Education Foundation, an education research group, says only about six in 10 students in Butler County graduate within four years.

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