The state has listed James Stonier as a high school dropout since the 18-year-old quit Fort Dorchester High School earlier this year when his grades plummeted.

But James spends more than five hours each day listening to teachers explain complicated math concepts and English skills. He hopes to attend Trident Technical College next year and eventually enroll at The Citadel.

Unlike the dropout stereotype, James isn't wasting his days lounging on his couch or stirring up trouble on the streets. Instead, he's focused on earning his GED by taking classes at Dorchester County's Adult Education Technical Assistance Center. He receives one-on-one attention in smaller classes and said he's learning in an environment geared toward his needs.

"It's just as hard as high school, but you have people here who are willing to spend time with you," he said. "I know my life won't be easy without a degree or certification or making money. For me, I just think this is a more successful way to get there."

Students like James were once a rarity in South Carolina's adult education programs. The centers were designed to help adults move up in the workplace, and partnerships with business and industry were the norm.

Adult education programs today, however, have positioned themselves to meet the needs of the state's multitude of high school dropouts. Numerous studies have found that South Carolina has the lowest on-time graduation rate in the nation, with roughly 55 percent of students graduating high school within the standard four-year period.

Educators often wonder where all of those dropouts go. Julie Kornahrens, director of Dorchester County's Adult Education Program, hopes her center can serve as one answer to that question.

Kornahrens — and directors of other sites across the state — now offer separate classes and schedules for "younger" students ages 17 to 21. She said her students are hard workers who are following a nontraditional path. "There's such a narrow focus on what constitutes a high school graduate," she said. "Not all students are programmed on the same clock."

David Stout, director of the S.C. Department of Education's Adult and Community Education office, said the Dorchester program's approach is reflective of a statewide trend in adult education. No longer are programs only focused on helping adults looking to switch jobs.

"We are getting younger and younger," Stout said. "If we can get these younger students a GED, and help them go to technical school, enter the military or apply for a job, then everyone wins."

Part of the new young adult effort includes the recent hiring of transition specialists, who play a similar role to school guidance counselors, at each site across the state. These employees assist in organizing college tours, preparing resumes, formatting job applications and teaching interview skills. Students are encouraged to keep in contact with the transition specialists even after they earn their GEDs.

Nearly 61,000 students across the state were enrolled in adult education classes last year, with 7,717 candidates attempting the GED for the first time. The state achieved a pass rate of 62.1 percent for first-time test-takers. The first-time passing rates in Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties all exceeded the state's rate.

At Berkeley County's Adult Education Program, director Lillie Caldwell said her staff is committed to serving students ages 17 to 21. Berkeley offers virtual school classes online for young people interested in taking GED courses but who cannot make it to the center.

Centers across the state, including those in the Lowcountry, also are expanding their traditional programs at the same time they strive to boost their services for younger students. Berkeley, for example, has one of the largest programs for English as a second language in the state, Caldwell said.

The Dorchester center offers child-care services while parents study. That help is the reason 33-year-old Tiffany Cordero is able to pursue her GED.

Cordero dropped out of her California high school during her freshman year. When her family moved to Summerville last year, she sought a job in customer service but was told she needed a diploma or GED certificate.

Every morning, she sends her 12-year-old off to middle school and her 6-year-old to elementary school. Then, Cordero goes to "school" herself, with 23-month-old Eddie. He stays in the child-care area while mom stresses over algebra.

"It's hard and I'm slow to learn, but I think I'm improving," Cordero said. "I made a bad decision to drop out in high school, and it's made my life harder later on. If this program can help me get my GED, I know things will be easier."

Award winners

Adult education programs in Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties were recognized for their achievements at the state's recent "Celebrating our Success" awards luncheon. Here are some of the awards that the Lowcountry's programs took home:

-- Met or exceeded the state's performance standards in all categories: Berkeley, Charleston, Dorchester

-- The state's top seven counties with the highest number of high school credentials awarded: Dorchester

-- Issued the highest number of career-readiness certificates: Berkeley

-- Adult Education Director of the Year: Julie Kornahrens, Dorchester

-- Adult Education Director Hall of Fame (director with a minimum of 15 years' service): Lillie Caldwell, Berkeley

-- Exceeded the state's GED pass rate, determined by the number of exams passed divided by the number of tests attempted: Berkeley, Charleston, Dorchester

-- Exceeded the state's GED pass rate for first-time test-takers: Berkeley, Charleston, Dorchester

-- Exceeded the state's GED pass rate, determined by the number of individuals taking the exam divided into the passing number, not taking into account of the number of times a person attempted the test: Berkeley, Charleston, Dorchester