CYC Blog: The Educational Divide

Finishing School after Dropping Out: The Resilience of Our Youth

Futures Academy, a Colorado Youth for a Change program within Aurora Public Schools, recently held its Recognition Ceremony to honor student accomplishment. It’s an amazing day and it’s hard to describe the excitement. Especially moving is the fact that many of these students had, at one point, given up the hope of accomplishing anything academically. Now, here they were celebrating, beaming and exuberant.

Yet take a moment and try to imagine the journey to this point. Imagine struggling as a student, dropping out and then returning to school to graduate or earn a GED. Try to imagine losing your faith in education, in school, and possibly yourself, and then realizing you have to go back and finish.

As Kari, a student at Futures Academy, explained, “I had the label of habitual offender, always with a red flag next to my name, my mom on speed dial in every principal’s office, and I came to believe that the label was really me.”

Unfortunately, this a common story for many of our youth and often the first real step towards dropping out: internalizing the “bad kid” narrative. Trust us, we know that some of these students are difficult and even hard to work with at times. But they are adolescents, teenagers, just barely a step away from childhood. Many have endured the narrative for years—starting in elementary school—and when they finally decide to believe it might be true, the consequences are devastating. 

Yet there are often other factors. For example, 70 percent of the students CYC works with qualify for free and reduced lunch—in other words coming from poverty. For comparison, the free and reduced rate for Douglas County is 12.4 percent, while Jefferson County is 31.7 percent.

Kari continued, “I pretty much gave up on education, so instead of going back to school, I went to work full-time to help my family. My dad’s medical bills were piling up. And while he was fighting for his life, and dealing with the loss of his brother, he was still doing everything he could to support me, too, and I just felt like I needed to give back.”

But what do you do if you’re 18 or 19 years old and decide to return? And imagine that you have freshman level credits. The idea of sitting in a class with 14 and 15 years olds just isn’t realistic. During adolescence, a year or two is often an enormous leap in cognitive understanding as well as maturity. In addition, what if you’re now feeling isolated and alone because of your experiences at home? What do you do?

Colorado Youth for a Change reaches out to these students and helps them get back into school. We do this across the Metro Denver area - calling hundreds and even thousands of students each year.

Another student at Futures Academy, Karina, explained reconnecting with school this way, “A year after I quit school I became pregnant with my daughter, Mia. Mia is now three years old and she is the biggest reason I decided to go back to school. A year after I had Mia, Amber (Student Advisement Manager with Futures) called my dad and explained all the ways Futures Academy could help me. After one conversation with Amber, my dad was sold. I felt welcomed from the moment I walked into Futures and enrolled the very next day. I loved going to Futures. The smaller classes gave me more opportunity for one on ones with teachers if I needed it. I was able to work at my own pace and I felt supported instantly.”

Kari described going back to school and finishing this way, “Then I found Futures. Futures took a chance on me and understood my needs. Futures proved me wrong. I wasn’t just an outcast. I was more than just a habitual offender. I never knew if I was going to walk across a stage, but here I am, speaking on behalf of the graduates of Futures Academy.”

Graduation is a great time for all students. It is a truly momentous occasion regardless of your background. But it’s really worth marveling at the resilience of the students at Futures Academy as well as the other students graduating across our programs. Their determination and “grit” should inspire us all. We are fortunate to be continuously inspired by them. We hope you are too.

And lastly, one more thought from Kari, “I went from street smart to book smart. We should never settle for less than we deserve. Shoot for the stars. And don’t be afraid to change because change is not always for the worse.