Whenever graduation season rolls around, I find myself feeling a mix of emotions. Of course it is a joyous occasion, but as a high school dropout, I can’t help but feel a little sad when I remember that I missed out on prom, and yearbook signings and the excitement that comes with one of your first great accomplishments. But this year, I finally have reason to feel proud when I think of graduation. And it is thanks to my nephew, Cory. This past year, he accomplished what no one in my family has ever been able to do. Not his grandmother, mother or father. Not his older brother, uncle or me. With determination and hard work, Cory broke free from a depressing cycle, and became the first in our family to graduate from high school.
When I told him that if you are poor and of color, you have a less than 50 percent chance of graduating from high school, it was a statistic he said he was not surprised to learn.
“It’s a shame,” he said. “Low expectations don’t really help kids think they can do better.” He added it’s a good feeling to know that he won’t be part of that statistic.
Since working at Communities In Schools, I’ve come to learn more about the dropout crisis in America, and particularly among minority youth. My nephew Cory would have been considered at-risk for dropping out from the day he entered school. The indicators were everywhere. He grew up poor, raised by a single mother in the projects, and the schools he attended were overcrowded. He had the burden of dealing with a learning disability – he was diagnosed in middle school with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). As an incoming high school freshman, he lacked motivation, focus and direction. And there was a family history of dropping out he could look around and see on any given day.
We verbally supported Cory through school, letting him know how important it was. There were friends who had graduated and told him not to drop out because he would regret it. And the teachers and counselors at his school reminded him that he was capable. He failed classes, but he kept going, even attending summer and night school sessions for five years. And finally, he completed everything he needed, overcame all those obstacles, and received his diploma.
His graduation ceremony, a small but warm and intimate event, was a lunch catered by the students in the school who were taking culinary courses. Parents, teachers, volunteers and the school principal congratulated all of the students. Between wiping tears from my eyes and hugging my nephew, I did manage to snap a few photos. Each of the 11 graduates made a statement about what the accomplishment had meant to them. Cory admitted to having problems with everything. “But one day I woke up and got focused on what I had to do.”
My own wake-up call didn’t come until after I’d already dropped out of high school. I spent a year working part-time as a supermarket cashier, realized it was not the future for me then wisely signed up for GED classes at a community college, where I enrolled and later received my first college degree. Back on track, I improved my options for earning higher wages and having a more comfortable and secure lifestyle.
Cory, too, is a success story. He is fortunate to never have had to go to school hungry or without a coat. He never was bullied or had to deal with gangs. He just never received the kind of support and resources, like counseling or mentoring, that he could have if his school had been a Communities In Schools site.
I asked him what he thought students need, and how he and other students would have benefited from a Communities In Schools site coordinator. “Encouragement, help, praise. Then, if they are doing good, they will keep doing good.”
And he said he is happy that he stuck it out and received his diploma.
“I’m glad but I don’t plan on just being a high school graduate. I’m trying to be a college graduate. I think I want to study psychology. Then maybe I could help kids like me.”
Cory’s high school diploma is a first step in the direction of success in life. We celebrated and congratulated him with a big family party. Not only did he overcome the struggles he had with high school, he now wants to give back to those who are going through what he did. And that too, is another reason for me to feel proud.