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February 2014 Vol. 21. No. 4 Focus on Keeping Students Engaged

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Students tell of struggles on way to a diploma

Three students who got back on track and earned GEDs talk about the supports they needed.

By by Bill Hangley
Photo: Harvey Finkle
Alvin Gonzalez (left) and Evan Harmon, graduates of Congreso's GED program, participated in a student roundtable at the Philadelphia Youth Network offices.

As three young men who once dropped out share their stories, Nasir Mack hears what could lie in store for his friends – or himself.

One former student left school after butting heads with the deans. Another needed academic help but didn’t get it. A third just didn’t show up. 

Despite individual obstacles, all three graduated from Congreso’s GED program in North Philadelphia – but not before spending months out of school. Their stories bear the hallmarks of teenage life: confusion, frustration, big decisions, painful realizations – and in their cases, learning, success and growth. They came to the Philadelphia Youth Network to talk about their journeys and help the Notebook explore the kinds of experiences that lie behind students’ familiar complaints.

Mack sat beside them, taking in every word. His friends back home aren’t living these stories – not yet. 

“I know kids two years older than me that don’t even go to school,” said Mack, 14, a bright-eyed, sharply dressed high school freshman. 

“Even one of my best friends. His parents let him stay home. He can say, ‘Oh, Mom, I’m not going to school today,’ and his mom will let him.”

But sometimes, staying home turns into dropping out. 

Almost a third of District students don’t graduate. The reasons are myriad. In a 2011 survey by Youth United for Change, students were equally likely to cite problems at home as problems at school, but the recent rounds of budget cuts have exacerbated many longstanding student complaints about school environments. 

At a student-led School Reform Commission meeting on the subject this fall, young people consistently cited familiar concerns: classes are too big; troublemakers are too distracting; extracurricular activities are underfunded or nonexistent; discipline is too harsh; and staff instability makes progress and relationships hard to sustain. 

Mack’s friend’s only explanation for not going to school is, “I don’t feel like it.” So while Mack can’t say exactly what’s behind his friend’s feeling, the stories of Alvin Gonzalez, Baraa Abdul, and Evan Harmon may offer some clues.

He wanted to draw

Alvin Gonzalez may have dropped out, but he doesn’t consider himself a typical dropout by any means.

“Around my neighborhood, they’re dropping out to do drugs, or deal drugs,” said Gonzalez, 19, from North Philadelphia.

That’s not Gonzalez’s thing. Wiry and passionate, he’s an artist and that’s all he wants to be. “I was the one that does his work and then just draws,” he said. “Almost everyone in school loved my artwork.” 

But first at Community Academy of Philadelphia Charter School and then ASPIRA Olney High School, he found himself at odds with administrators. He left Community because “just drawing” wasn’t enough. And he left Olney after being told he’d have to repeat a grade. 

It wasn’t that Gonzalez had no support. At Olney, he had good relationships with some teachers and deans. He was taken on trips to visit art programs and campuses.

“They had a mascot, the [college] trips, the teachers being cool with the students – it was a nice experience,” Gonzalez said.

But the academics, he said, were not as strong – and there was no wiggle room when he struggled. So he dropped out, finding Congreso’s GED program only after getting “tired” of life without a formal education. 

He has no regrets – but said he would have stayed if Olney had handled him more like a person and less like a number. 

“If I don’t like the way I’m being treated, I’m a person to say something,” Gonzalez said. “I’m not going to stay shut and just say, ‘Oh, they’re doing their job.’”

He wishes he had listened

The love for fun is written on Baraa Abdul’s face. His smile comes easily and lights up the room. 

But when it came time to sign up for high school, fun was all he wanted, so he didn’t enroll at all. 

Plenty of his friends in North Philadelphia felt the same way. Goofing off, chasing girls, finding odd jobs to make money – that was the plan. 

“It wasn’t so much doing drugs as just wasting time,” he said. 

Abdul, 18, grew up being home-schooled. As his freshman year approached, his mother expected him to be searching for a high school. She had no idea what he was actually doing, and “I made sure she didn’t,” Abdul said. 

When September rolled around, his mother said, “You’re going to go to school, right?”

Abdul replied, “Nah, I thought about it, but I’m just going to work.” 

His family wouldn’t let him become completely untethered. They helped keep him engaged with sports and activities. The turning point came about two years ago when he won a championship in a Southwest Philadelphia basketball league. 

It was the first formal recognition of non-academic achievement Abdul had ever received. 

“Winning an actual trophy, something I wanted to do, not something I had to do, you get that feeling to make you push harder for something bigger and better,” Abdul said shyly. “Ever since, I’ve been taking basketball seriously.” 

About the Author

Bill Hangley Jr. is a freelance contributor to the Notebook. 

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