We did it in white this year. The traditional royal-blue caps and gowns were cast aside. Not that it mattered much. For some parents in my economically disadvantaged neighborhood, their child's graduation was such an accomplishment that they wouldn't have cared if the outfit was a flannel bathrobe and house shoes.
The sad part was that the 1995-96 school year began with 480 freshmen, but only 159 white gowns crossed the stage for the 2000 Commencement Exercise of W.H. Adamson High School in Dallas.
More than half the people who had been in my freshman class were absent on May 20, and it seems that, for many, the main reason was their own apathy.
The school did its part. It was well run. The halls were kept clean, and the teachers took an interest in what they taught. We had our traditions: homecoming, football games, pep rallies. We paid tribute to our namesake, former principal Adamson, and we respected our alumni. For the most part, teachers and students got along, and tutoring was offered every week. My senior class was like any other group of students - well, what was left of us.
A close friend of mine, Laura Cruz, says it would have been easy for her to give up when she got pregnant. Her family initially wanted her to drop out and take care of the baby full time. She stayed in school and is grateful for all the help she got there.
"Teachers like Mrs. Puaze were really good about sending work home when the baby was still an infant," she says. They also helped her find free child care and tutors. "I doubt my abilities," when it comes to math, she says, but other than that she feels ready to start college, baby and all. Laura credits her parents, along with the school, for her success.
Although she worked, participated in senior activities, and took care of baby Lauren, Laura graduated on time with several scholarships. I learned a lot from her in the past year about the struggles of life, but I still don't understand why others didn't make it.
The pregnancy rate in my district is high, and contributes to my school's high dropout rate. But I've heard other excuses that are lame, including that school was boring, teachers didn't care, or the administration was out to get them, and "school is just not my thing."
For a while, I thought the law would bring them back to the school I took pride in, but many of them got lost in the vast bureau that deals with juveniles.
Some people got as far as graduation practice only to have their hopes dashed. I'll never forget sitting there and watching as three of my classmates were informed that they weren't going to graduate. My heart went out to them, but I was relieved that my place in line had been reserved.
For some students like myself (my father didn't finish high school and my mother only received her associate's degree in May), for low-income families, for those who have to take tests in a language they can barely speak, high school graduation might be considered their greatest accomplishment. But maybe it's easier to reach that goal for those of us who can envision going on to other achievements as well, like college graduation.
It's an uphill battle to keep more students in school, and there are many factors that can get in the way, some that I might not even know about. I may not be the best person to determine whether the system tries hard enough, but it does try, and it manages to catch some students before they drop out. If students really desire to succeed, I believe they can find the help they need to get through high school.
*Rita Castillo is a Monitor summer intern and heads to the University of Texas at Austin later this month.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society