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A Race Against The Odds, With A High School Diploma As The Trophy

Christina Ulsh
Ashley Black reads her essay to her class, as it's recorded for an Audio-Visual assignment.

Almost 90 percent of high school students in Texas graduate from high school, although there is large variation by race, ethnicity, family income, disability, and English proficiency. At Polytechnic High School in Fort Worth, 74 percent of African-American students graduate, while 80 percent of the Latino students do.

As part of the KERA Yearbook Project, producer Dianna Douglas visits Polytechnic twice a month, to teach the students some of the basics of radio production. During a recent class, she found that the promise of a high school diploma, and the forces that keep students from reaching it, creep into many conversations.

“You feel like giving up and dropping out," wrote Ashley Black in a recent essay assignment. They were told to write a commentary about a social issue they care about. "But I want to graduate,” she said. 

“Waking up at 6 every morning, taking AP classes and dual credit courses, having volleyball practices and games every day, homework, and then going to sleep at 2:00 every doesn’t seem that there’s enough time in one day,” she said.

Based on what educational theory one subscribes to, her chances of graduating may be determined by raw intelligence, or by non-cognitive skills like persistence, self-control, grit, and curiosity. Maybe it’s because of school district concerns, like class sizes and teacher pay.  

Ashley didn’t bother with the theories. She just said that she was making tradeoffs that some of her classmates weren’t—skipping parties, missing sleep. For her, the payoff of finishing high school is enormous.

“I want to go to college and do things that my family has never done. I want my kids to see that it is possible to not have to struggle, and stretch your paycheck,” she said.

"The Reason I Wake Up Every Morning"

Other students wrote about coming out to family that they were gay, some about hating the school cafeteria food, some about how they love Old Body Style trucks. One girl argued that adults should stop doing drugs with young children at home.  Gisselle Acosta wrote that as a Latina student, she feels judged by people at school and around town.

“You’re not going to finish high school. You’re going to end up being a servant or maid,” she wrote.

Most of her family didn’t have a chance to graduate, she said. Some don’t see why it matters. But a few people are rooting for her, like her grandmother.

“Although my abuela never went to school, I look up to her. She’s the reason I wake up every morning, and try,” Gisselle wrote.

“I want to make her proud and I want to prove to everyone I can and I will do it.”

Gisselle has found some clubs at school designed to help students like her get through high school and even think about college. High schools like Polytechnic are trying to create resources for undocumented students, for students at risk of joining gangs, for students facing bullying, pregnancy, homelessness and crushing poverty.

“So yeah, I am graduating from high school, and when I walk that stage, I want to see everyone who didn’t believe in me right there,” she said.

Their classmates applauded when Ashley and Gisselle finished reading their essays.

Both girls are on track to finish high school. Research says that diploma will help them make hundreds of thousands of dollars more during their lifetimes. And if they finish college, their estimated boost in earnings jumps into the millions.