For Some, Harder-Won High School Diplomas Come With Maturity

Saira Barillas, 20, of Greenbelt serves as mistress of ceremony at commencement. Barillas, once expelled from Eleanor Roosevelt High, hopes to graduate from college.
Saira Barillas, 20, of Greenbelt serves as mistress of ceremony at commencement. Barillas, once expelled from Eleanor Roosevelt High, hopes to graduate from college. "I'm so proud of myself right now," she said. "I didn't think this day would ever come." (By Susan Whitney-wilkerson -- The Gazette)
By Dennis Carter
Gazette Staff Writer
Thursday, August 9, 2007

The hurdles that loomed before Iris Ventura were almost enough to make her quit. But like her classmates, she overcame the obstacles one by one and earned her high school diploma through the Prince George's County Community Based Classroom program.

The program, part of the county's Department of Alternative Educational Options, is free and open to any Prince George's resident, ages 16 to 20, who has dropped out of school or cannot attend public school.

Ventura's education was stalled when family needs required her to work full time, leaving no time for classes or homework. When she started to pursue her diploma again, she did not let being pregnant derail her efforts. Instead, she enrolled in the Community Based Classroom program.

Last Thursday, Ventura, 19, of Lanham was among 90 program graduates who walked across the stage at Charles Herbert Flowers High School to receive their high school diplomas. The graduates wore the caps and gowns of the county high schools they once attended, and they celebrated the completion of an education interrupted by failed classes, expulsions, family matters or jobs.

"We commend you for your stick-to-itiveness," county school board Chairman R. Owen Johnson Jr. told the graduates before they received diplomas that once seemed out of reach.

The program employs five full-time and 20 part-time staff members, who conduct two-hour classes in various subjects five days a week all year. Students have to complete their studies by age 21. The program caters to students who need 10 classes or fewer to complete high school. Staff members also provide counseling and help with job placement and social services.

For Ventura, the graduation celebration capped a tumultuous two years. In 2005, she went to register at DuVal High School after four years at Bladensburg High, but she was told that fifth-year seniors had to go to summer school, enroll in the Community Based Classroom or try to earn a general equivalency diploma.

Ventura, who needed to complete four classes to graduate, initially chose something else. She decided to go to work at a District restaurant.

"I thought if I worked hard enough, I could advance," she said. "But I realized I needed a diploma."

Soon after enrolling in the Community Based Classroom program, Ventura learned she was pregnant, but she stayed in the program. "When I [went into labor], I called CBC to say I wouldn't make it to class that afternoon," Ventura recalled with a laugh after the graduation ceremony.

The program's dropout rate is about 2 percent, program secretary Sheila Dalton said. "By the time they get here, they're down to their last chance," she said.

Principal Tammy Williams said these graduates show a fortitude rarely displayed by teenagers and young adults.

"We're proud of our students' pressing forward and finishing the job," she said. "It's very inspiring and it shows that with belief and perseverance and determination . . . you will accomplish your goal."

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