Look into the circumstances surrounding a high-school dropout and you'll likely find a broken family. Even more than poverty, language or...

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Look into the circumstances surrounding a high-school dropout and you’ll likely find a broken family. Even more than poverty, language or ethnic identity, family dysfunction leaves children without a sense of worth or purpose, and doubting their ability to succeed.

Those are the insights of Al Sugiyama, executive director of the Center for Career Alternatives, which this year is marking 20 years of service to at-risk teenagers in Snohomish County.

Tonight the center, which also serves youths and adults in King County, hosts its annual dinner at the Seattle Sheraton. In May, Sugiyama will be honored by the University of Washington for his leadership in diversity and for his organization’s work to reconnect youth with education and employment.

At the center’s offices in South Everett, Sugiyama said schools often can’t provide the individualized attention, counseling and job opportunities that can help at-risk students complete high school and re-engage positively with the community.

“They dropped out for a reason,” Sugiyama said. “That reason follows them here.”

Across Snohomish County, about 30 percent of students leave school without a diploma. Among some groups, the numbers are much higher — 57 percent of American Indians, 50 percent of Hispanics and 45 percent of low-income students don’t graduate within four years, according to 2004-05 figures from the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

That adds up to about 1,800 students dropping out of high school in the county each year. Those students are more likely to experience early pregnancy and drug and alcohol abuse and to end up unemployed or in jail.

“The need is huge,” said Sugiyama, who served on the Seattle School Board from 1989 to 1997.

The center’s Everett classroom helps students from 14 to 21 years old earn missing credits and prepare for a high-school-equivalency degree.

A case manager also connects them with support services, including drug and alcohol counseling, parenting classes and the opportunity to volunteer or work in the community. Business leaders talk to students about jobs and the education they’ll need to obtain them.

About 100 students earn diplomas through the nonprofit agency each year. The center, which receives state and federal money and United Way funding, serves almost 700 at-risk youths annually. The agency’s budget for 2006 was $2.4 million

Ashlei and her twin sister Felicia, 17, both entered the center’s program after attending several county high schools and alternative schools, spending less and less time at each.

Angel Lopez, director of the Everett center, said the twins’ story is similar to those of other students he sees. The girls’ mother is an alcoholic who never married their father. The twins fought with her and her live-in boyfriend and ended up sleeping on the floor at friends’ houses and getting into drugs.

Lopez said they’ve gone from being addicted and homeless to being on track to earn a GED (General Educational Development) certificate in June. They’ve also organized a clothing drive for homeless youths, volunteered with Habitat for Humanity and this spring will work part-time in a day care.

At the center’s school, where two teachers provide help to classes of about 20 students, Ashlei said, “I can raise my hand a million times and not feel like an idiot. There are more options here, more things to do.”

One service Sugiyama said is missing from Snohomish County is a recovery program for middle-school dropouts. Last school year in the Everett School District, 53 middle-school students were either expelled or given long-term suspensions. At Marysville Junior High, it was 80 students.

These students often have the rebellious pose of older teens, but lack the maturity or life skills to resolve their problems or seek help, Sugiyama said.

He recalled one 12-year-old boy referred to the center’s King County program after he was suspended for repeatedly sleeping in class.

The Seattle case manager learned that the boy’s mother was a drug user who woke him in the night with paranoid fears and made him hide in a closet with her.

Sugiyama said that little positive is accomplished if such a student is suspended.

“They come back behind at school. They’re often left home alone. If they go through some type of anger-management program under orders from the school, they don’t have the opportunity to practice,” he said.

Brad Garner, youth-program manager for WorkSource of Snohomish County, which supports the center’s education and employment work, said its graduation rate is impressive. Garner previously worked in juvenile corrections, where he saw hundreds of young offenders caught in a cycle of low-self esteem, lack of education, unemployment and crime.

“As far as outcomes, this program produces,” Garner said.

Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807 or lthompson@seattletimes.com