Jessica Carpenter knows a thing or two about school dropouts.
She almost was one.
High school wasn’t the easiest for her. She went to school at a time when learning differences went largely undiagnosed.
You had to either swim academically or sink.
“I used to skip school – a lot,” Carpenter told me.
Her way of dealing with the learning disability was staying out of class and away from those dreaded teachers. Seems not taking education seriously was my way of coping.
Now, Carpenter is a data clerk in charge of posting transfers of student transcript information as those students head off to college.
I met Carpenter on an early Saturday morning at Lamar High School. She was part of an army of AISD teachers, staff, and administrators who, within the hour, would march across North Arlington to find students who were no longer students.
That is the objective of Operation Graduation, which attempts to re-enroll students who may have left school before graduation due to various factors, like working to support their families, becoming pregnant, or falling behind in credits and simply giving up.
Some students are just a few credits shy of earning their diploma, others a bit more, but the number of credits is not really the issue.
AISD wants to meet the student where they are in terms of their education and plans to work around whatever reasons they have for exiting school early in the first place.
“Our goal is to say, ‘Hey, this is not impossible,” said Lamer Assistant Principal Carolyn Longoria. “And here’s how you can accomplish this and how we will walk right beside you.”
Groups of at least three converge on homes to speak with students or student guardians, first as a fact-finding mission and next to offer options the student may have to return to school. When a student or a guardian can’t be reached, the group leaves information at the door explaining the graduation path.
“Our goal for the day is to say, ‘Hey, this is not impossible,”’ Longoria said. ”And here’s how you can accomplish this and how we will walk right beside you.”
AISD Trustee Dr. Aaron Reich was there, which was fitting, since he’s a sort of founding father of this annual event. Reich said he was at the same San Antonio education conference as former Superintendent Jerry McCollough when they learned of another district taking a day to lasso students who had not returned to school.
In Arlington, the event took on a life of its own. Most volunteers are teachers and staff with a soft spot for struggling students.
Take Andrea Donova. Married at 16, Donova left high school after several academic troubles but returned to earn her GED. She now has two master’s degrees, once worked as a television news producer, and currently teaches English at Lamar.
“I like being in situations where we try to get kids back to school,” she said. “To tell them they have a chance and opportunity. But you have to level up with yourself.”
Before heading out to knock on doors, Reich told volunteers about being “realistic” in measuring their success.
“Some years it’s a bust,” Reich said. “Other years, you get several; some years, you get a couple. If we can get one out of the day, it’s a saved life.”
I trailed AISD Interim Principal Dr. Steven Wurtz, Lamar Principal Lesley Maroney, and counselor Mariana Quintana as they visited three homes, connecting with one. They learned that the student was only one and a half credits away from graduation and would return to register.
“This is special,” an overjoyed Wurtz said after the visit. “This is a chance for them to get back on track to reach their long-term goals.”