At age 20, Melinda Suarez is reading and writing at a 6th grade level and taking part in the Center for Literacy’s Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE) prep class at the E3 Center, Girard Branch.
As she tells it, her education got off track early. She stopped attending John Paul Jones Middle School because she felt there was no point.
“The teachers just didn’t care and the students were just always doing something.” She wound up in an alternative program at Jones for students in danger of failing.
When that didn’t work, she moved to Horsham and was enrolled at Keith Valley Middle School, which is the only place in her educational journey that made her feel anyone cared about her.
“I got honor roll that one time because they actually really help all of their students,” she said.
But at age 14, she returned to Philadelphia and to Jones. The school put her in 8th grade, even though she protested she was academically unprepared. Then, after “three months and summer school for two weeks,” they sent her to high school.
She is bitter that she was constantly pushed along even though she wasn’t learning.
Suarez attended Kensington CAPA for a while after trying and failing to get into a more selective program than a neighborhood school. Her attendance record prevented her from being accepted, she said.
So she dropped out for good.
In 2010, Suarez started attending the E3 center at the prodding of her father. In addition to GED preparation, it provides youth development, job training, internships and other services for young people who are out of school.
“I would get lectures from him every single day, telling me how hard my life would be if I don’t have an education,” she said. “As I get older, that’s what I’m seeing. I’m 20 and it’s very hard.”
Each student at the E3 Center is assigned a personal caseworker, someone to make sure things are going well with classes and at home. Suarez says if the District wants to keep kids in school, they should have that kind of personal attention for all students.
“At least here they push you, and they care about you,” she said. “You can ask anybody here a question, and they’ll try their best to give us the right answer. They actually care more than regular school teachers do.”
When her reading and writing levels meet 8th grade standards, she will begin preparing to take her GED.
Suarez is well-spoken and astute. Although her life has taken a positive turn, she faces opposition to her choices every day. Even going to the E3 center, run by Congreso de Latinos Unidos, causes snickers among some of her peers.
“People look at us like we’re stupid or something for coming to school. But really, we’re the smart ones that are trying to get out and get an education.”