Pegged with failure, Emerson is a school of triumph

Jacquelin Pando (Ben Felder)

Jacquelin Pando (Ben Felder)

The odds were stacked against Jacquelin Pando.

A year before she was scheduled to graduate from Emerson High School, which has the city’s highest dropout rate, she became pregnant.

When her daughter was born, Pando thought she would leave school, joining nearly half of her classmates who fail to make it to graduation day.

“When I had my daughter, I thought I wasn’t going to finish high school,” Pando said.

However, as her daughter, Anahi, nears her first birthday, Pando not only walked across the graduation stage, but did so as valedictorian.

Ask her what made her decide to finish school and she pauses, wiping a tear with one hand and holding her diploma with the other.

“My daughter,” she said.

At Emerson High School, which the state labels with an F grade and the average dropout rate is more than double any other Oklahoma City Public School, the students seem set up for failure. Add in the challenges of poverty, parenthood and other facets of urban life and the expectations beyond the walls of the classroom aren’t high.

But Pando, along with nearly 100 of her classmates, celebrated the completion of high school Thursday night.

“It feels so awesome,” Pando said. “It’s been really difficult.”

Most of the Emerson’s students fail to complete high school within four years.

“I wouldn’t say it’s less than 55 percent,” Emerson principal Sherry Kishore said about her school’s dropout rate. “But it’s not a fair formula.”

The state bases dropout rates on students who fail to complete high school in the traditional four-year span. At Emerson, many students take longer.

“What people don’t understand is that I am graduating five-, six- and seven-year students who may of had to drop out for a year,” Kishore said. “It’s a good thing for a kid to come back off the street and say, ‘I want to finish.’ It’s a good thing for a [pregnant] girl to say she wants to stick with it, even though it might take her five or six years.”

Kierston Hill is one of those students who took a longer path to graduation.

“I’m a 20-year-old senior,” Hill said. “I was going to decide to drop out of school [after failing last year], but my mama told me I should stick with it.”

Ask Hill what he’s going to do next and a smile shoots across his face.

“I’m going to be a rapper,” Hill said. “I’m going to take over Oklahoma City.”

It’s hard to bet against Hill’s ambition, even though his mother translates “rapper” as becoming a music major in college.

When Hill failed out of school two years ago, he figured high school wasn’t for him. His mom, Latoya Hill, said nagging him to go back to school didn’t work. Instead, she found a more subtle way to motivate her son.
“I happened to find this picture frame that said, ‘It’s never too late to start a happy ending,’” Latoya said. “So I hung it in his room. A month or two later … he said, ‘That’s the first thing I see,’ and it’s what he thinks about all day.”

Kiersten also told his mother he was ready to go back to school.

“I was like, let’s go,” Latoya said. “I called my job and said, ‘I’m not coming in; I’m taking my child to enroll.’”
A few years later, Kierston is a high school graduate and an example that for every story of failure Emerson might get pegged with, there are just as many stories of triumph.

“It just shows he is strong,” Latoya said about her son’s graduation. “He’s going to be strong in life. He’s going to survive.”

Ben Felder

Ben is an urban affairs reporter covering local government and education in Oklahoma City. He lives in OKC with his wife, Lori, and son, Satchel. Ben holds a masters in new media journalism from Full Sail University and is an OKC transplant from Kansas City, Mo. Twitter: @benfelder_okg

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