More than 240 Dallas students who had quit school got their diplomas over the weekend. In a continuation of KERA’s American Graduate project, Shelley Kofler looks at how they beat the odds.
In a hallway near the auditorium where their family and friends waited, students who never thought they’d see this day nervously straightened their royal blue gowns. They arranged the gold tassels on their mortar board caps.
“I just can’t grasp it. I’m so emotional where I could cry,” said Quantisha Ray, who’s now 19.
She dropped out after she fell behind in middle school and had to repeat a few grades. She says she got discouraged but she never truly gave up.
“I came back because in my future I didn’t want to have to tell any of my children or family members that I quit school,” she said.
Izamar Campos quit for the same reason. Then she found the Dallas Can Academy charter school in Oakcliff where returning students learn in classrooms with no more than 15 students and social workers help troubled kids through personal crises.
“I went to a school where the population was about 5,000 students. Here I think each advisor has about 50,” she said as she credited her advisor for motivating her.
This new graduate who once avoided school now wants more of it.
“I’m planning to go to community college. I do plan to be a sonogram technician,” said Campos.
Moving from student to student, offering congratulations and hugs, teacher Gary Barnett looks like a proud father. He says, in fact, many of the students come to think of the Dallas Can staff as second parents because they provide the extra encouragement and guidance these young people often need.
“We receive a lot of students who come with a lot of family hardship,” said Barnett, citing poverty as the biggest problem.
“Some of them had a child. Some of them had to quit school and start working to support their families. What we do is kind of give them that independence to become self sufficient,” he said.
That’s part of what Dallas Can gave 17-year old Richard Flores, who we met last fall. He got kicked out of school for fighting. But the real problem was at home.
“My dad got deported. I got into a car wreck. I couldn’t pay attention in school because I thought about my dad a lot,” Flores told us in September.
But so much has happened since a friend talked Richard into going back to get his diploma.
In his final year he received almost all A’s. His new classmates elected him prom king. And in January Richard will begin training in the Navy.
“I felt like I was really in trouble and I just felt like I should make better decisions and do what I can for my country and myself to get some better discipline and become a better man,” Flores said.
As the traditional graduation march music begins to play and the new graduates enter the auditorium Richard’s mother, uncle and little sister lean forward to find him.
Rachel Flores explains just how important her son’s graduation is for the entire family.
“I was there,” she remembers. “I was going to graduate but things in my life just turned around and I didn’t go forward with it.”
“Words can’t explain how happy and proud I am,” she said. “It just seemed like he turned around one day and accepted everything he had done in the past and turned it all into good,” she said emotionally.
Richard says he’s here today, accepting his diploma and a special award for leadership because of the support he received at a school focused on returning students.
“When you’re walking down the hall teachers tell you hey, shake your hands, pat you on the back and make you feel good, make you feel welcome,” he said.
“Every time you think you’re down they’ll pick you back up and help you through it. I never got that at regular school,” he added.
The most important lesson Richard and many of these graduates say they learned is that life offers second chances and you should take them.