America's Promise Alliance and the Center for Promise published a new study this fall, Don't Quit On Me: What Young People Who Left School Say About the Power of Relationships. Craig McClay, lead youth engagement specialist at the Center, has spoken to hundreds of young people who left school before graduating about their experiences. Here is his interview with Arlene Baldwin,* who never considered herself an "at-risk" youth until she realized what that term really means: youth who simply need help.
by: Craig McClay
Arlene Baldwin is like many of the young people I've interviewed in the past two years. She grew up around violence in her community, violence that killed a close friend. Traumatized, she struggled to show up to school on time, and eventually, at all. She gave up on a system that seemed to have already given up on her.
Arlene was lucky enough to have a supportive family and to find a perfect stranger who asked her why she was crying in front of a school that wouldn't let her back in, who showed her how to take online classes and get the credits she needed to graduate.
She also had the support of an entire network of adults at an organization that works with at-risk youth, called the Center for Teen Empowerment.
And Arlene has something less tangible. She's tough, smart and talented; she's insightful, thoughtful and full of potential and promise.
Now a 21-year-old senior in college, Arlene credits her success to the many adults in her life, inside and outside of her family, who believed in her, encouraged her, and refused to quit on her. Take a look at what she has to say in the video below:
What follows is a shortened transcript of the conversation that my colleagues and I had with Arlene. It has been edited for context, length and clarity. Like Arlene, this interview has so much to teach the world. It is my sincere hope you'll take a minute to listen.
You understand the scope of what we're talking about here, so I'm going to go over the purpose. We want to understand what happened in your life. What happened that pushed you out of school? What helped you get back into school and on your current trajectory?
Being in a building with over a thousand kids, and still trying to be an individual in school is tough, especially when you live in a community like I live in, [where] violence happens daily. When I was 17, a very close friend of mine was shot and killed. I had just been with that person an hour before they died. When you're with somebody before they're killed, it really takes a toll on you.
I wasn't able to go back to school. I tried. I tried to go back daily...but I started showing up later, and later, and teachers were just like, "You're late; why aren't you here?" I tried to explain what I'd been going through, and it became this, "Everyone who's been affected by violence is still able to be here, so why can't you be here?"
That was the environment -- it was normal to lose somebody, so there's no reason for you not to come. People lost their brothers; people lost their parents, and they're still here.
It wasn't possible to live and be happy and go to school and socialize; the last thing you want to do is socialize and laugh when a part of you is taken away, and you can never get it back. And when you don't have teachers who don't understand that and who blame you for being human and feeling terrible because someone you love has been killed, it makes you not even want to be around them, and it pushes you away.
As an adult, I take responsibility for leaving school -- ultimately it was Arlene's decision -- but when you have a whole school of people and no one there supports you, why even go? Why go to a place where it's your fault?
I think about it often now; I'm a senior in college, but I reflect back, and I think if I had the support, maybe I would've never left school.
But what made me go back was the support I had from Teen Empowerment -- this youth organization that I was involved in -- and it's interesting, while I couldn't' go to school, I was still able to go to Teen Empowerment daily. And some people wondered, "Well, what's your excuse? You could not go to school, but you can go to work?"
And I tried to explain [that] it wasn't just going to work; it was going to a place where people understood what I was going through.
People were facing violence themselves; people were survivors, and that's who I was around, and that's why I went. I had the staff there to support and to sit down and talk and understand what's going on, and help me find my way back to school, and I made it, I made it back.
So was it just the one adult, or was it a community that was created here?
There were many adults in my life that support me. I have a very supportive family. Everyone in my family is on my side no matter what I'm doing.
But having adults in my life who weren't family and who still believed in me; it was amazing, and it wasn't just one. It was a whole staff. It was everyone across the board who didn't give up on me, and I think that is why I am who I am today, because I had other people who just didn't give up.
It wasn't like, "You're of no benefit to us, you don't have an education, you're just another dropout, you're just another statistic." I was never viewed as that, and I think that's what makes me believe so much in other young people now. The adults in my life who weren't family, they saved my life.
How long did it take you to re-engage, and did anyone help you to find that alternative school?
I left school in December, and months went by. I was at home, wondering, what am I going to do? Then I got a letter for summer school. So I thought, there's still a chance for me.
But when I went to summer school, they said, "We can't accept you; you're two days late."
And I'm like, "This letter was misplaced; there are two Arlene's in my family; it didn't get to me."
And they were like, "We just can't accept you; too bad, see you again next year for eleventh grade." And I was just over it. Here I am, trying to figure it out, I have my mom with me, and I'm walking out of the doors of this high school, crying, thinking that this is crazy -- I'm trying, and I'm being shot down again.
As I'm walking out the doors, there's this lady I've never met, and she says, "What's wrong?"
[I explained what happened] and she said, "Come upstairs with me; I have something for you."
I'm thinking, how can this lady help me? She doesn't know me. What can she offer me? How can she help me? But she did. And she was like, "I'm going to get you into some online classes at a school nearby, so you can complete those classes that summer school wouldn't accept you for."
This stranger got me connected and got me into these online classes, and then I was able to go to the twelfth grade.
So were you at Teen Empowerment when all of this was happening, or did you find Teen Empowerment after?
Teen Empowerment hired me when I was 16. I was surprised I got the job because I wasn't what I believed to be "at-risk." You know, I go to school; I have a great family; I'm never hungry, anything like that. And they said, "Well, we hire people who are all types."
And then the next year, they're like, "You know, now you're one of our high-risk youth." And, I was like, "What? No, still not me." Yeah, I lost someone, I dropped out of school, but I didn't want to believe that I was an at-risk youth, because it sounds so awful.
I didn't know what to do with that -- I didn't know what to do with that saying; am I really high-risk, or is just the area I live in high-risk? Is it just the community? Is it just the people?
I didn't want to accept it being me, because I didn't think I was failing me. I thought the community and the school failed me. But I came to accept it, and thought of it more so as youth who need help; that's what I think I was.
There comes a point when you have to own it and not be ashamed of dropping out of school. Everyone can't sit in a classroom for eight hours a day when you have a ton of things that have taken over your mind; when you feel like you can't -- if I can't survive, how can I go to school?
Years have passed, and it's still healing, it still hurts to think about it. It's not losing the person that really hurts you anymore; it's the people who gave up on you.
You can live with someone dying; you come to understand that years later. But a school is supposed to be there for you no matter what, I was tired of just being another seat and just someone to give them great test scores.
You want a school who cares about you and your well-being, and instead of blaming somebody for not being here, you ask what is going on. "Are you okay?" is all they could have asked me, and things could have been a lot different.
Again, it was my choice, but now it hurts just knowing that there are schools out there that give up on young people, and the fact that one gave up on me, and I mean, I had the support to return back, and I had the will to do it, but I just think about other youth who maybe don't have that, and all they have is teachers, and when they don't believe in them, they give up. And there's no one there to bring them back in; that's what hurts.
What do you say to young people? What's your overall message to them?
The main message I have for the young people I work with is to always be you and to believe in yourself.
It's hard to believe in yourself when you hear negative things, whether it's teachers, whether it's community members, whether it's family, telling you, "You can't do this."
If I'd listened to what people told me I couldn't do, I wouldn't be doing anything. I'm in college now, being a dropout, and I say that proud because you know, as a college student, I have a 3.8 GPA, and I got a chance to really show people what happens when you believe in youth because the only way I got into college was through alternative admissions, and you have to show them that you deserve to be there, and they only take a hundred and twenty of you.
But imagine if schools opened up more seats for people like me, who on paper, you look horrible when you have seven 'F's on your transcript--you think, "What can this person do?"
But I showed you what I can do, and now I'm one of the greatest students in my program at school. I'm the one who everyone comes to--I'm the RA, I'm the orientation leader, I'm the College Now Peer Mentor, but when you looked at me when I first applied, you didn't let me in through regular admissions because I looked so horrible.
Don't believe what's on that paper, and even for you, for students, don't look at that and say, "I can't do this." If I looked at that, I wouldn't have done all these great things. I would've just thought, "I'm that paper, I'm those seven 'F's, I'm horrible."
And that's not true. It's not true at all.
*Arlene did not participate in the study, but her life is illustrative of the hundreds of youth who were interviewed for Don't Quit On Me.
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