High school graduation brings stories of triumph and achievement, of trying times and hard work mixed with perseverance and determination.
Emily Whitley’s story may seem like a standard one: A teenager struggling to finish high school buckles down and gets it done, delighting her teachers and impressing her classmates.
But with two small children to care for and the loss of her father to cancer to cope with, Whitley’s graduation next Thursday from the Project CDA alternative high school in Coeur d’Alene represents to her something she never thought possible, and something teachers at the school say is anything but standard.
“It sounds silly to think that we would (praise) someone because they come to school every day and on time, but with two kids and 18 years old, it’s rough,” said Jeri Midgley, a counselor at the school. “She has gone to summer school; she has done extra classes here so that she would graduate with her peers.”
Whitley came to Project CDA (Creating Dropout Alternatives) after struggling at Post Falls High School.
It wasn’t academics that troubled her. At 15 and pregnant, it was the stares of her classmates and disapproving looks from teachers that made the regular school setting too much, she said.
“Fifteen is a terribly young age – terribly young,” Whitley said. “Now that I’m almost 19 and see that, I don’t know how I didn’t get more crap about (being pregnant).”
She learned she was expecting again not long after the birth of her first son. She spent time at New Vision alternative high school and the Anchor House youth ranch before learning of the Coeur d’Alene School District’s alternative high school, which offers free child care for student parents.
The mother of nearly 2-year-old Jorden and nearly 3-year-old Taven will be the first in her family to earn a high school diploma.
Three other mothers will walk with Whitley in the school’s 45-student graduating class.
“Graduate on time was my biggest goal,” she said. “Now that I’m just a couple days away, it’s crazy that I got here.”
Whitley describes herself at the onset of her struggles as a typical, naïve 15-year-old – aware of what sex could lead to but distracted by a sense of invincibility. The births of her sons, then the death of her father last year, awakened her to responsibility. Her dad always stressed the need for her to finish school despite being a young mother, and she didn’t want to disappoint him or give her sons an excuse to drop out of school later in life.
“Graduating was so important to my dad,” Whitley said. “I know that this is what he wants.”
At Project CDA, class sizes are smaller and there’s no homework. But attendance policies are strict. More than three unexcused absences means no credit.
“Most kids we lose because of attendance,” Midgley said. “But better learn now than when you’re 35 with kids trying to hold a job.”
Whitley lives in her own apartment in Post Falls and works nights at a call center. Taven and Jorden stay with her mother in the evening.
“She already is where I try to get most of my students,” said John Hassell, Whitley’s favorite teacher. “She shows up every day and does her job, doesn’t get involved in the high school drama.”
The school’s day care was the biggest factor in her success, Whitley said.
“They raised my kids while I was in school,” she said. “Without the day care, I couldn’t have done it.”
She’d like to go to college and become a social worker, but the cost and logistics of finding child care make more education seem like “a whole ‘nother tangle,” she said.