At-risk Phiadelphia Students Graduate
By Kristen A. Graham | June 18, 2008 | Inquirer
Drugs got Lawrence Shorts kicked out of high school. For Danny Garcia, the glitz of a promising career as a boxer caused him to drop out. Anya Patterson had a baby. Ashton Butts had to support himself.
Like many around the region will do this week, these students yesterday donned caps and gowns and strode to a platform to accept diplomas. But for the 23 graduates of three Accelerated Learning Academies of Philadelphia, programs that give dropouts and at-risk students a different way of earning a diploma, graduation meant a little more.
These graduates have bills and children. They have seen the other side, and decided they want more.
Take Shorts, for whom the lure of the streets was so strong he was expelled from Ben Franklin High three years ago.
Shorts, 20, was selling drugs and acting out in school. He could have been a statistic – one of the roughly 8,000 Philadelphia students who leave high school without a diploma each every year. These young men and women are less likely to earn a solid salary, more likely to end up in prison.
Ultimately, the future of Shorts’ son Quadir caused him to overcome any negative influence.
“I wanted something for my son to look up to, “ Shorts said. “Being out there in the world without being able to get a job, it’s tough.”
Now, he wants to enter a trade school and learn to be an auto mechanic. But he also grew to love English in his second-chance high school, and finally sees himself as a student.
“I like being here,” Shorts said, adjusting his gold sash. “It didn’t feel like I was going to ever finish high school until I got here.”
The Hunting Park, Southern, and Southwest Accelerated Learning Academies, run by for-profit Community Education Partners (CEP), gives students aged 16 to 21 plenty of one-on-one coaching, lets them take classes at their own place, and allows them flexible schedules.
In total, the Philadelphia School District has seven accelerated learning programs, with 1,175 students. There is a waiting list to enroll.
Anya Patterson, who marched down the aisle with an armful of roses and a smile that lit up the room, considers herself one of the lucky ones.
She had to take time off form Philadelphia Military Academy when she gave birth to daughter Cyiana Miller. The prospect of returning to regular high school was daunting, but leaving the educational system without a degree was not an option for Patterson.
“Everybody makes mistakes,” said Patterson, 19. “If there’s stairs to climb, you climb them.”
Having the option of morning or afternoon classes meant Patterson could juggle her baby’s needs with her schoolwork. And she has no intention of stopping now.
On Monday she starts school at Chubb Institute to become a medical assistant.
Ashton Butts gets a few months of a break before heading to Pennsylvania State University in State College, Pa., in August. He earned a full scholarship to major in petroleum engineering.
But the future wasn’t always so rosy. Butts, 19, began to lose his way at Martin Luther King High last year when outside concerns intruded.
“I was supporting myself,” he said. “I was trying to be in dependent, and school slipped.”
When he realized dropping out was a real possibility, Butts got his life together and found the accelerated diploma program.
“I knew I could do it, but this is one baby step,” Butts said. “Now, I want more.”
For Danny Garcia, more, for now, means an eye fixed on a world welterweight title. A rising boxing star, he was fighting in Finland in 2006 when he found out his frequent absences meant he was officially a dropout at Washington High.
He had a glamorous lifestyle - flights around the world, a promoter pumping him up, a perfect record. But he also had an idea that someday, it would matter that he never finished high school.
“I don’t want to be an average person,” said Garcia, 20. “Most of the boxers, they don’t finish high school. I want to be a smart boxer.”
The first in his family to earn a high school diploma, Garcia wants his older brother and 7-year-old twin sisters to be proud of him for more than just his accomplishments in the ring.
Each one of the students has his own success story, said Timothy Griffiths, senior program director of CEP’s Accelerated Learning Academies. Take Valedictorian Sierra Ford, who left Fels High School last year with just six of the 23.5 credits she needs to graduate.
She was 19 and a freshman in high school. She was tired of being teased, and certain that a General Education Diploma was not for her.
Ford found the accelerated program and got accepted. After an intense school year of finishing courses at lightening pace, she’s now an intern at a realty company and is waiting to hear about college acceptances.
“It takes determination and self-discipline,” Ford said of her journey in an essay about her graduation provided by the school. “There are days when you are not going to want to come to school, that’s when you dig deep and go.”
In the middle of the gold-and-yellow balloons and festival atmosphere of the graduation, held at CEP’s Hunting Park campus, Griffiths looked a little bit like a proud father.
“Lots of kids don’t make it,” Griffiths said. “This is a great ending.”