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Caught in life’s crosshairs, students struggle not to dropout

fr bucellaThe trials of adulthood came early for Nicole Ferguson.

The day she turned 16, she got a job at McDonald’s and was soon living on her own, trying to make ends meet while working full time and going to school. 

“I went to school, went to work, went home, fell asleep … every day it was the same routine,” Ferguson said. “I had no time to do homework.”

School was just one more thing piled on to her daily challenge to survive. Luckily, Ferguson found the Haywood Community Learning Center.

“If I had stayed at Pisgah [High School], I don’t know if I would have graduated. If you want to be honest, I think I’ve learned more here,” Ferguson said.

Now two years later, Ferguson is well on her way to the final credits she needs for a high school diploma, and has aspirations to attend Haywood Community College and even Western Carolina University after that.

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She’s expecting a baby this fall, however, and life is coming at her fast again. She still works at McDonald’s, and is trying to set aside a nest egg for diapers when the baby comes, temporarily sidelining her hopes of saving up for car insurance and her driver’s license yet.

“Things just take a lot of money,” she said.

This Monday, Ferguson was camped out at a laptop work station at the Haywood Community Learning Center in Hazelwood plugging away at an online financial literacy course — a requirement of the high school diploma program here. She took a break to offer a pep talk to a new student across the table.

Gloria Clark, 16, has almost no high school credits and thus a long road ahead of her if she hopes to get to the finish line like Ferguson one day. Clark’s dad went to jail when she was 8 and she never saw him again. She was taken from her mom and put in group homes and foster care, eventually running away.

Now, she and her mom are living together again, but Clark works two jobs  — Bojangles’ and Burger King — to help keep the household afloat, plus helps take care of her grandmother and 14-year-old brother.

“It’s hard. It sucks,” she said, reflecting on her current lot. “It’s really hard to include school.” 

Students at the Haywood Community Learning Center don’t conform to a stereotype. They may be teen parents, homeless, victims of abuse or suffering from emotional trauma. Some have social anxiety that makes regular high school feel like a shark tank.

Others have health problems that simply make traditional high school too difficult. One student who gets seizures was too embarrassed to attend regular high school, but here, she’s free from the fear of judgment by her peers.

“Nobody here cares what any other students have,” said said Erman D’Alesandro, a teacher in the program who works with exceptional students. “It is a safety net here, where they don’t have that pressure from other students around them.”

For Anthony Buccella, it’s the first time in his life that he’s ever really experienced what a supportive nurturing environmental feels like. 

“I was not judged at all by anybody here,” Buccella said. “The only thing they really look for is respect and that you try.”

Growing up with an abusive, alcoholic father, Buccella had spent most of his teen years in group homes and foster care, but would be put out on the street when he turned 18 to fend for himself.

“Two years ago, I thought I would never make it,” Buccella said. Buccella’s future was indeed grim until he moved from California to Haywood County to live with a long lost family friend and was pointed toward the alternative learning center.

He is graduating this month with a high school diploma and plans to attend Haywood Community College next year and get a cosmetology degree.

Buccella’s story is a common refrain among students here, who graduate not only with a diploma but with higher aspirations than they had when they first walked through the door.

Kira Simons, 19, hopes to attend community college next year to become a vet tech. Simons had a hard time coping in traditional high school with the stress of timed tests.

“I would be anxious and nervous and forget everything,” Simons said. Here, she doesn’t have the pressure of a ticking clock when she takes test. She only has to work her way through the material.

Simons said the program isn’t for slackers. Expectations are high, and if students aren’t willing to apply themselves they won’t make it.

“They push you a lot, but they do it in a different way,” Simons said.

Realistically, a lot of students don’t go on to community college, so job skills are a huge emphasis at the center to help students become more employable.

“So many of them feel fastfood is their only job recourse,” said Leslie Mowitt, the onsite workforce development grant coordinator. With summer approaching, Mowitt coordinated a job fair at the center that’s open to the community at large.

Mark Ethridge, a science teacher in the program, has literally taught hundreds of students in honors and college-level science courses during his years at Tuscola High School. But this is the most rewarding teaching job he’s had. One thing that strikes him is that the kids in his AP classes at Tuscola over the years usually didn’t come back home after college.

But the students he gets to teach now are here to stay, to raise their own children here, toiling away in the service and retail jobs that make up the backbone of society and that the rest of the community depends on. 

“These are our neighbors,” Ethridge said. “These people are the ones who will be here. We owe them the same opportunities to make the best life they can make for themselves.”

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