Woman earns her high school diploma at 78
After more than six decades of being out of school, Alfreda Johnson has finally accomplished something that she had always wanted to do – she’s earned her high school diploma.
Applause and cheers filled Temple Performing Arts Center on Wednesday afternoon as Johnson, 78, walked across the stage in a red cap and gown to receive her diploma and shake hands with District Superintendent William Hite, who was the guest speaker.
Though some may find going back to school after 60 years a daunting task to consider, Johnson said: “It was not difficult. It was a joy.”
Johnson graduated from the South Philadelphia High School Educational Options Program (EOP), an alternative ed program that allows students and adults over age 17 to continue earning credits toward their diploma. The number of courses required to graduate depends on the number of credits the student has upon enrolling. Johnson enrolled in the fall and finished her classes in March. She is one of 500 graduates from EOP this year.
Besides operating at South Philadelphia High, the program is also offered at Benjamin Franklin High School, Philadelphia Learning Academy North, and Philadelphia Learning Academy South. It includes students who have dropped out of school for various amounts of time, and the average age of its students is 25. Johnson is the oldest EOP graduate.
“No one personifies tenacity and grit better than this young lady,” said Hite of Johnson, as he addressed the graduates.
EOP manager Cameo Posey applauded the students during the celebration and reminded them that “[their] stories are powerful.”
Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida, where she attended elementary and junior high school. She started high school there in the 1950s, but in her 11th-grade year, she became pregnant with her son and dropped out.
When Johnson turned 19 years old, she and her son moved to Philadelphia so that she could be closer to her mother and sisters. She worked as a babysitter while looking for better employment to support herself and her son.
“I always wanted a decent job, making decent money,” Johnson said.
Johnson got married in 1965. She had two more children, and through the years, she always encouraged them to “get your education.” All of Johnson’s children attended public school in Philadelphia, and all graduated from Overbrook High School. Johnson now has three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Johnson said that she always hoped to return to school and actually tried to get her GED more than 30 years ago.
It was in 2015 that Johnson decided to try again after learning about EOP from a friend. Her daughter secured her transcripts from her former schools in Jacksonville and delivered them to the EOP. Through the program, Johnson earned awards for making the honor roll and for perfect attendance. She was even voted prom queen this year.
Johnson credits her success in the program to the support of her family and the “lovely teachers” she had.
Audrey Nock, site director, said that Johnson is both a “role model” for and “inspiration” to other students. Many of her teachers agreed.
“Each and every day, Alfreda came to class with a smile on her face and worked diligently to complete all assignments. Every student in the class looked up to Alfreda and admired her for her hard work, calm voice, and dedication,” said Carl Murset, Johnson’s American history teacher.
“When the class was finally finished, Alfreda earned her American history credit with an average of 96.88.”
Roberta E. Emmanuel, an English teacher at South Philadelphia High School, added: “It has been a pleasure to teach such a wonderful student, mother, wife, and friend. It is nice to know that Mrs. Alfreda Johnson not only starts her race, but she finishes her course.”
Reflecting on her graduation, Johnson said, “I feel great.”
And she had a plan to top off that great feeling and celebrate the accomplishment.
“I’m going to eat,” she said.