Fifteen former high school dropouts walked proudly before a packed room Nov. 17 to receive certificates for earning theirs GEDS, a major milestone achieved with help from Achievement Academy of Durham, a nonprofit dropout recovery program, and its community partners.
The students, ages 16-51, were mothers and fathers, locals and immigrants, musicians and artists, all joined on this day by one important new label – high school graduate. That credential opens the door for pursuing post-secondary credentials and careers never before available to these students.
“Earning my GED means I’ve just opened the door to success,” graduate Telliunna Gray told the crowd. “It means I can finally go to school to do what I love. It means I’ve just gotten one step closer to my career.”
Gray, a young single mother, struggled to attend school because she lacked childcare. She also lacked confidence because of past failures in a traditional school setting. Gray began attending Achievement Academy one night a week while her father cared for her child.
“She didn’t feel like she was a good student but, every time, she would pass her test on the first try – and they are very difficult tests,” said lead teacher Kate Carayol.
One year later, she has passed the four tests required to earn a GED, secured a warehouse job and set her sights on earning a cosmetology credential and entering a career in that field.
Achievement Academy is one of three dropout recovery partners (with Gateway to College at Durham Technical Community College and Performance Learning Center at Durham Public Schools) of Made in Durham, a community partnership of educators, businesses, government, nonprofits and youth focused on creating an education-to-career system that ensures all Durham youth graduate from high school, earn a post-secondary credential and enter a career by age 25.
Dropping out of high school carries significant economic consequences. High school dropouts earn on average $14,000 a year less than those attend even one or two years of college, and they experience nearly three times the poverty rate. Disconnected youth – those who are not in school or working – cost Durham taxpayers as much as $84 million each year in lost tax revenues and costs for policing and other social and support services, according to a 2012 study by MDC Inc. For every 500 youth that Durham reconnects, taxpayers will save $7 million annually, MDC said.
Achievement Academy focuses on reconnecting former dropouts and helping them move out of poverty through year-round education and services that enable them to earn a GED, gain critical reading skills, complete college preparatory training and enter post-secondary education, typically a community college, so they can earn a credential and find sustainable employment.
All of Made in Durham’s dropout recovery partners collaborate to identify student needs, fill system gaps and improve or create community resources that can help students move successfully though each stage.
Gray, for instance, connected with Achievement Academy through the Youth Employed & Succeeding (YES) program operated by Community Partnerships Inc. for Durham County. YES offers tutoring and study-skills instruction, career-building work experiences, financial support for childcare, books, transportation, uniforms and other needed items, and, importantly, connections to other community resources, such as Achievement Academy.
Gray also received college and career counseling and assistance from a Made in Durham counselor assigned to the alternative schools through a grant from United Way of the Greater Triangle.
Graduation keynote speaker Jane Wettach, an Achievement Academy board member, clinical professor of law and director of the Children’s Law Clinic, applauded the graduates for overcoming the many barriers they face and taking an important step toward career success.
“None of us had any control of who are parents are, at what point in history we arrived in the world or where we started out. Some have been given a life that just seems cluttered with road blocks rather than full of wide open pathways,” said Wettach.
“But we’ve all got two lives: one we are given, the other one we make,” she said. “You graduates took the life you were given and made it into something better. You set goals and worked hard. Your achievements helped the Achievement Academy live up to its name. We thank you for that, and congratulate you for that.”
Achievement Academy’s 2016 graduates are:
Learn more about Achievement Academy at www.achievedurham.org.